Release of Trump–Zelensky Call Readout Raises Questions About Justice Department Involvement

(White House Photo)

On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that the House would be opening an impeachment inquiry into the president, the White House released a summary “transcript” of President Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian president.

If the president or his advisers thought the readout would be another supposed “total exoneration,” they were mistaken. The conversation raises additional questions about Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, one of his potential 2020 opponents, as well as about the involvement of the Justice Department — specifically Attorney General William Barr — in those efforts. Following the transcript’s release, American Oversight filed additional Freedom of Information Act requests in its investigation of the Trump administration’s contacts with Ukraine.

The transcript shows that Trump not only discussed his desire for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to look into the unsubstantiated allegations that Joe Biden interfered in Ukraine’s dismissal of a prosecutor, but that he also said he would direct Barr and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to call Zelensky. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it,” the transcript said.

Giuliani has openly boasted of his efforts in Ukraine, and even received assistance from a State Department official in setting up a meeting with a Ukrainian official. American Oversight began investigating Giuliani’s interference back in May, when Giuliani first announced a (later canceled) trip to Ukraine, and has filed multiple FOIA requests across the administration for communications with or about Giuliani and other key figures involved in the efforts. We’re also looking into the president’s temporary withholding of nearly $400 million in congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine days before his call with Zelensky.

The White House’s transcript also calls into question whether the president was attempting to use the Justice Department in potential attempts to coerce Ukraine into investigating his perceived political enemies. On Wednesday, American Oversight filed additional FOIA requests, seeking communications that Barr and other key Justice Department officials had with Ukrainian officials and with Giuliani and other involved figures, as well as any communications about the efforts.

Also in the transcript are comments from Trump about the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Louise Yovanovitch, who had been recalled in May, before Giuliani’s canceled trip. Yovanovitch was a career diplomat who had not been appointed to the post by Trump. She had been criticized in conservative media for purportedly criticizing the president in private conversations, and during the Zelenksy call, Trump alluded to Yovanovitch: “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that.” In May, American Oversight also requested State Department communications about the ambassador’s recall.

Still publicly unreleased, of course, is the intelligence community whistleblower complaint that set all of this off last week. We’re also seeking Justice Department legal analyses regarding whether to withhold the complaint from congressional oversight committees, along with any guidance from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Office of Management and Budget, or the Departments of Defense and State regarding aid to Ukraine — including guidance that originated at the White House.

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