The transcript of the July 25 phone call that took place between between television star turned president Donald Trump and comedian turned president Volodymyr Zelensky overshadowed the long-awaited meeting between the two on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Let us assume until proven otherwise that the transcript, produced from notes taken by members of the NSC, was not doctored or falsified. What does the record of that phone conversation tell us?
For starters, it reveals to the entire world what everyone in Kyiv had known for six months: Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has been on the warpath in Ukraine on a quest for kompromat to be deployed against Joe Biden in the American presidential campaign.
Trump is of course America’s first Central Asian president: our own Nazarbayev or Aliyev, born in the New York City ‘stan’ of Queens. Anyone who spends a great deal of time in Kyiv, as I do, will have known about the machinations of Trump’s colorful band of emissaries for at least half a year. One diplomat stationed in Kyiv that I know once referred to it as ‘bizarro-world track three diplomacy’.
In the transcript, the linkage of aid and military assistance to the investigation into Biden and his wayward son Hunter, who really was profiteering off the family name, is intimated rather than stated outright. We were promised a hostage situation, but what emerges is something more darkly interesting and based on mutual understanding.
I’d expected Trump to make the request directly. He turns out to be capable of more sophisticated maneuvering than I would have imagined. The linkage is brought up in so delicately that, rather than swaggering threats straight out of Goodfellas, we hear something closer to the laconic and understated mutual understandings of The Godfather trilogy. (Enterprising Ukrainians quickly overlaid the text of the phone call onto a Godfather gif.)
In many ways this is also the sort of conditional transaction that every American president engages in to secure policy goals, perhaps less crassly. That this is considered to be an impeachable offense is honestly stupefying . This is election-time stuff and so doubtless of a different order, but the great irony of the scandal is its core: Biden has bragged of withholding a billion dollars in aid in order to get Ukraine’s prosecutor-general fired. There should be no mistake: Biden was of course executing a policy that was collectively decided upon by the European Union, America and Canada and every responsible adult wanted PG Shokin sacked.
Trump on several occasions directs Zelensky to speak with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as well as attorney general William Barr. (And what, by the way, are we to make of this Crowdstrike business?)
The instant rapport and chemistry between Zelensky and Trump was not surprising. There are many similarities between the two and capacity to operate on the register of bluster is shared by both. Soothing a mercurial personality on whose emotional whims rests your country’s national security is an act of basic survival and patriotism. Anyone who reproaches Zelensky for his approach is simply wrong. Zelensky’s starting position was that Trump already resented the Ukrainians, thinking that they intervened against him in favor of the Clinton Campaign in 2016. This was founded in the existence of the so-called ‘black ledger’, a handwritten document which was found in the burned out remains of the headquarters of Yanukovich’s ‘Party of Regions’ and which included information on all the off the books payments made to various Ukrainian elites. The ledger’s publication resulted in Paul Manafort’s ouster from the Trump campaign and was made public in the summer of 2016.
The black ledger, with its revelations of Paul Manafort’s off the book payments, quickly led to his resignation from the Trump campaign after an article about them appeared in the New York Times, and led eventually to a seven-and-a-half year long prison sentence. A running debate about the ledger’s authenticity continues in Kyiv, with skepticism of its veracity typically distributed along partisan lines. Some people speculate that either the entire thing or the entries related to Manafort could have been falsified.
The three individuals who were responsible for passing the Black Ledger to Americans were the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) head Artem Sytnyk, former SBU deputy head Victor Trepak and the muckraking parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko. That at least some parts of the Ukrainian political elite had played a dangerous game in 2016 is an incontrovertible and uncomfortable fact, and one that has gone mostly unremarked in the flurry of news reports about what is already being referred to as ‘Ukrainegate’. It needs to be underlined that they were independent actors, or members of the opposition who were engaged in conflict with the Poroshenko administration. To the best of our knowledge the Ukrainian presidential administration was not involved in the handing over of those documents. Explaining the nuances of Ukrainian internal political factional in-fighting to Trump is not an easy assignment however.
The chorus of denunciations of Zelesnky as ‘obsequious’ is categorically objectionable. Conversations between world leaders are also meant to stay private for this very reason. Likewise, bonding over beating up on the Europeans, and Berlin especially, is no great metaphysical crime.
For their myriad sins (pontificating and posturing as if they were multilateralists while doing what is good for Berlin, being a weak link on Iran sanctions, cutting a gas deal with Putin on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline) the Germans especially deserve to get this sort of thing in private. Whether this backbiting will cool relations between Kyiv and Berlin remains to be seen. All it is of course destructive and vulgar, but that is par the course for Trump. On Thursday, Zelensky, who was not thrilled, publicly stated to Ukrainian newspapers that no one consulted him about his portion of the conversation being made public.
In my personal interactions with President Zelensky, I’ve found him to be emotionally intelligent and a shrewd calculator of psychological profiles. Like Trump, Zelensky himself can be a macho and prickly character, though I have experienced him to be a highly skilled courtesan and flatterer. Here, he did what he had to do for the good of his country.
Having compared my experiences with half a dozen others who have had private conversations with Zelensky, I have come to the conclusion that in such interactions he tends to mirror to the tone and register of his audience – the expert deployment of a comic stage skill.
Ironically, even as Kyiv has become the center of the political universe, Ukrainians are mostly uninterested in the news coming out of Washington and New York. If they bother to read the transcript of the phone call however, the only part that might be surprise them is where Zelensky assures Trump that the new prosecutor general is 100 percent his man.
Neither president seems very gentlemanly when discussing Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine. She comes off sounding almost like a witch in the transcript. Whether you think that she was indeed out of her depth during wartime, or was personally too brittle, or stood stolidly in the way of a malignant conspiracy, or bad-mouthed the president, or championed anti-corruption activists who were hostile to Trump, or simply overstepped her institutional bounds in a personalized political environment depends on ones politics. Still, she was a hard-working, patriotic professional and listened attentively when she took me out for dinner in Odessa. The way that she is treated by the president in the phone call — like the way she was humiliatingly recalled a few months before the conclusion of her tenure — debases everyone involved.
In his television show Servant Of the People, Zelensky played an everyman history teacher, Vasyl Holoborodko. Zelensky characterized him as striving to continuously demonstrate that despite all the corruption around him, he was not owned by anyone, and that he was above all beyond reproach in his own personal morality. This phone call, two months into the real-life drama of Zelensky’s presidency, reminds us yet again not to believe what we see on television.