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Justice Department Releases 'Memorandum' Of Phone Call With Ukrainian President

Sep 25, 2019
Originally published on September 25, 2019 10:49 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now we find out more about what President Trump discussed with the president of Ukraine. The White House has released information relating to a controversial presidential conversation. President Trump admitted that he asked Ukraine's president about former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump did so even as his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was seeking political dirt on Biden from Ukrainian officials. President Trump, in recent days, also promised a complete transcript of the call. And now the White House - or rather the Department of Justice have released a document. NPR's Ryan Lucas has seen the document - actually one of several that are being released today - and he joins us now. Ryan, good morning.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: First, I want to be clear on what this is. I'm looking at the unclassified version of this document myself. It says telephone conversation with President Zelenskiy of Ukraine. Now, when we say transcript, Ryan, we're in the business of dealing with transcripts. I think of - there's a recording, someone listens back to the recording, they get every word down. Is that what this document is?

LUCAS: There's actually a note on the bottom of the first page kind of explaining what this is. It looks like a word-for-word transcription, but what this note says is that this is not a verbatim transcript. This is a text recorded and these are the notes recorded and the recollections of people who were on the call as trying to listen and memorialize it. So this is what that is. It's not necessarily a word-for-word verbatim transcript of the call between Zelenskiy and Trump.

INSKEEP: I see there's also a note on the top here. It says note takers, Situation Room. So people are in the White House Situation Room. They're listening on the same line. They're taking notes. We would like to believe they're in good faith, but we don't have any reason to think that there is a recording to check this against. Now, what does the conversation say according to this record of it?

LUCAS: Well, there's the usual kind of congratulations that the president gives his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But the question that we were all looking for, of course, is whether the president brings up the question of former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden's son. And on a certain page of this transcript, Trump does indeed bring this up. And I'm going to read to you a bit from this transcript. So this is the president talking, President Trump talking. (Reading) The other thing - there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution. So if you can look into it, it sounds horrible to me.

Now, in his answer to this, the Ukrainian president says that he is going to appoint the next prosecutor. And what he then tells President Trump is that that individual will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. The issue of the investigation of the case is actually the issue of making sure to restore the honesty. So we will take care of that, and we will work on the investigation of the case.

INSKEEP: Now, Ryan, I feel obliged to slow down here and make sure we're absolutely clear about what we're discussing. Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, did have a board position on a company in Ukraine. The company in the past had been accused of corruption. That's been checked out, in some ways debunked as a real story, but it was something that it was of great interest to the president. And you just read the quote. He's speaking to the president of Ukraine, and he says, if you can look into it. He is asking the president of Ukraine to investigate the family of his prospective presidential rival, Joe Biden, correct?

LUCAS: That is correct.

INSKEEP: There is also a bit of this transcript that we're looking at here, Ryan Lucas, in which the president's personal lawyer comes up. And, again, we should note this is an official phone call from the president of the United States to the president of Ukraine. And President Trump begins talking about Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer, the former mayor of New York City, who openly, publicly, it's been discussed in the papers, had been spending quite a lot of time looking for political dirt on behalf of his client, political dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. And President Trump speaking to the newly elected president of Ukraine, this country with some dependency on the United States, he says, I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call. And I'm also going to have Attorney General Barr call, and we will get to the bottom of it. I am sure you will figure it out.

What is going on there?

LUCAS: Well, it appears as though the president is telling his Ukrainian counterpart that he is going to have his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, get in touch with President Zelenskiy of Ukraine and have them work - what it appears from this transcript, have them work on developing the investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. Now, there is a lot in this transcript that is not clear. There are some portions of it where it appears the words are garbled. It's not entirely clear what the president is referring to. The reference to having Attorney General Bill Barr speak to Ukrainian president and his people about this, the Justice Department has said in a statement today that the president's - President Trump has not spoken with Attorney General Barr about investigating Ukraine or anything related to former Vice President Biden or his son. The president has not asked Attorney General Barr to contact Ukraine on this or any other matter. They're saying that there has been no communication between Attorney General Barr and Ukraine on this or any other matter either, nor has Attorney General Barr spoken with Rudy Giuliani. That is the Justice Department's story.

INSKEEP: And, Ryan, I'm just continuing to go through this transcript, which we're seeing just in the last few minutes here. You've had a little more time with it. And here is another reference. The president repeats - and, of course, people who've seen him speak in interviews, speak in public, know that he's a very repetitive speaker. He goes again and again on the message he wants to drive home. And here in the next page he says again I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.

I haven't been able to count all the references, but he is asking again and again and again for the vice president to be investigated in some way, for the president of Ukraine to get in touch with Trump's personal lawyer. This is not just a glancing reference in this transcript.

LUCAS: Well - and the thing is as well that I - I have spoken with Rudy Giuliani about his allegations regarding the Bidens and Ukraine. And what Giuliani told me is that he has indeed been in touch with Zelenskiy's office. He had actually planned a trip to Ukraine after this call happened, ended up calling it off, but then he met with a senior adviser from Zelenskiy's office, a man by the name of Andriy Yermak. They met in Spain. Giuliani says that he provided Yermak with the information that he had collected on Joe Biden and Hunter Biden and the allegations that he's raising and basically suggested to the Ukrainian adviser that this is something that Ukraine should look into. So we do know from Giuliani's own statements that this is something that he has been in discussions with Ukrainian (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: OK. So the transcript - or not really a transcript. This compendium of notes of the conversation is one document that you've looked at. It's the one that's gotten the most attention, but it is not the whole case here, nor is it the only document you've seen, Ryan. What else are you looking at?

LUCAS: Well, that's right. Remember that this all ties back into this whistleblower complaint that has become the subject of a standoff between Congress and the administration. We now know from the opinion that was - well, that complaint was basically filed to the director of National Intelligence. And we are learning a couple of things about that complaint and the individual who filed it. According to senior Justice Department officials, that individual was a member of the intelligence community who learned of this phone call and possible transgressions from White House officials and therefore flagged it to the intelligence community's inspector general. The whistleblower, therefore, did not have firsthand knowledge of the conversation.

And what the inspector general alerted the Justice Department to is the possibility that there was a campaign finance violation here. And the Justice Department, we now know, looked into that. The Criminal Division of the Justice Department looked at that referral, came to the conclusion that there was indeed no campaign finance violation on the part of the president, not because of consideration of whether you can indict a sitting president or not, which was, of course, one of the questions in the Mueller investigation...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

LUCAS: But rather they said that there was no way to determine whether this thing that the president was allegedly asking for, an investigation of a political rival, there was no way to determine the value of that thing. Therefore, there is no way to proceed with an investigation, essentially. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.