The Problem with Trump: The Ukraine Call

The third part of a long, but connected, set of thoughts.

“#UNGA” by The White House is in the Public Domain

Following on from my previous two posts on this subject, this contribution is about the Ukraine call (which I broke down in detail here: The Quid Pro Quo Debate). Not only did this call lead the House to formally start an impeachment inquiry, but it is a pretty straight-forward example of abuse of power by Trump.

This incident is to be contrasted with the activities that lead to the Mueller report because those are a) a complicated network of actions and actors, b) the collusion allegations predated his time in office, and c) Trump himself was not directly implicated.

With the Ukraine call we have a straight-forward interaction: a phone call between Trump and Zelensky. It happened recently, and the basic content of the call is not in dispute, because the White House released a memo summarizing the call. The call is not hard to understand as a general matter. further, if one actually reads the memo it is quite obvious that Trump is using his office to ask a foreign head of state for help on opposition research about a political rival.

It takes some serious rationalization to ignore the abuse of power. One of the strongest (and I use the word advisedly in this instance) defenses I have heard has been, “well, they all do it.”

It is so obvious that when House Minority Leader had a portion read to him on 60 Minutes, he thought the interviewer had added a word:

McCathy immediately understands that “I would like you to do us a favor though” is an ask. And anyone who reads the memo can clearly see that Trump is first reminding the Zelensky that the US has been good to Ukraine and Zelensky clearly wants more help and it utterly willing to flatter Trump as needed.

A quick recap.

Trumps says

“I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine”


“I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine.”

Zelensky says:

“I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost. ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”

It is right after Zelenskiy asks about buying Javelins That Trump asks for a favor as quoted above.

That favor is personally for Trump, not for broad political goals of the US government. It is a clear attempt to leverage his office for personal political gain.

He wants help proving a conspiracy theory that would undermine the idea that Russia meddled in 2016 as a way of undermining the Mueller Report as well as any suggestion that Russia helped him get elected. He also wants help investigating Joe Biden’s son.

These are asks that would benefit him personally. Neither is part of a broad public policy goal.

He can claim this is all just about wanting to root out corruption, but such assertions are absurd on their face. He has demonstrated no interest in fighting corruption. Indeed, he has often been more friendly to corrupt regimes than to non-corrupt ones.

Regardless, as McCarthy demonstrated, the words are powerful. If supporters avoid the words, they can better rationalize. However, not only does the phone call undermine Trump’s claims of innocence, the evidence of wrongdoing is mounting.

For example, via Lawfare: The Volker Texts: What Quid Pro Quo Looks Like.

To quote career diplomat Bill Taylor from those texts:

“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Sondland replies: “Call me.”


Taylor texts Sondland, “Counting on you to be right about this interview, Gordon. … As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”

So, was pretty obvious to Taylor as to what was going one.

There is also, via WaPo: Two business associates of Trump’s personal attorney Giuliani have been arrested on campaign finance charges

The two men, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who had been helping Giuliani investigate Democratic presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden, were arrested Wednesday evening at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, where they had one-way tickets on a flight out of the country, officials said.

These individuals have been linked to attempts to oust the US Ambassador to Ukraine (who Trump fires and who testified this week).

While it is true that as evidence mounts that the story will be easier to muddy, the basic narrative is radically clearer than what is to be found in the Mueller report.

All of this is a lot of words to say:

  1. The basic story here is pretty straightforward: Trump clearly and obviously asked the President of Ukraine for a political favor
  2. The White House itself provided basic confirmation of this fact.
  3. The original memo is The whistleblower report are a few pages (in contrast with the two volume book that was the Mueller Report).
  4. Trump’s public call for China reinforces the basic narrative (as does is monofocus on Hunter Biden—as focusing on a singular person undercuts the notion that this is broadly about corruption).
  5. Evidence continues to mount.
  6. Unlike during the campaign, witnesses to these events will not all be loyalists and cronies.

So, while I expect a lot of rationalization to continue, I think it is going to increasingly become more difficult (and years from now it will all seem obvious, even to a lot of current defenders).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Pylon says:

    I still think that Trump saying it was a “perfect call” sounds just like a guy describing to his friend the lie he told his wife to cover cheating. “I told her I was at the reception – there were hundreds there so I wasn’t missed. It was a perfect story”.

  2. @Pylon: It is truly bizarre but also perfectly representative of his unique syntactic approach to English.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    He only has about half a dozen modifiers in his vocabulary. Everything is a superlative. The bullshit fountain never runs dry with this guy.

  4. Gustopher says:

    Both the Ukraine Call and the Abandonment Of The Kurds also show that for Trump, all things are transactional.* There’s no intent to do the right thing, and not even an acknowledgement that there is a right thing.

    It’s stiffing the contractors, but with greater consequences.

    Some scumbag once said to his employees that when he pays them at the end of the week, they’re even. That’s a man who has no concept of loyalty, community or pride in one’s work. That scumbag was better than Trump.

    *: Best case scenario. If there are long term goals in the Kurd problem he created, they are not American long term goals.

  5. CSK says:

    @Pylon: @Steven L. Taylor: Well, at least he’s stopped abusing “proud” and “proudly.”

  6. Kathy says:

    I confess I’m stumped as to why Trump released the summary of the call, or why didn’t he, or more likely his aides, edit it further to make it harmless.

    This is not like the criminal who claims they’re innocent of bank robbery because they were committing rape at the time. This is the type of criminal who claims to be innocent of stealing a million dollars from a bank because they took two million.

    I also can’t see how the Congressional investigation can be complete without the full transcript, or how Dennison can’t keep from presenting it as evidence at the Senate trial if he still thinks it clears him.