ukraine scandal

Questions About the Trump-Zelensky Memo, Answered

A memo of the call between Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, the White House released a “transcript” of a key July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky — or more accurately, a memo summarizing the call. While Trump had claimed the transcript would show the call was “perfect,” it failed to pour cold water on the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry — and, in fact, raised more questions. Here’s a quick guide to help decipher the major questions about the document.

Is this the full transcript?

No. It’s a “Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation” according to the document itself. A footnote at the bottom of the first page explains:

CAUTION: A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place. A number of factors can affect the accuracy of the record, including poor telecommunications connections and variations in accent and/or interpretation. The word “inaudible” is used to indicate portions of a conversation that the notetaker was unable to hear.

Some have suggested that a verbatim transcript of the call would be much longer, since the conversation lasted 30 minutes but is conveyed in just five pages.

What is CrowdStrike?

After Zelensky told Trump that Ukraine would like to buy more Javelin missiles, the anti-tank weapons that it first acquired in 2018, Trump responded by saying, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Then he launched into a fairly inscrutable monologue mentioning CrowdStrike and former special counsel Robert Mueller.

CrowdStrike is a U.S.-based cybersecurity firm that the Democratic National Committee hired to look into hacks on its servers. The firm determined that the attack originated from Russian government hackers. In his comments to Zelensky, Trump appeared to be referencing a conspiracy theory that accuses CrowdStrike of participating in a cover-up by helping the DNC hide that the hack was an inside job. According to CyberScoop, this is a common right-wing conspiracy and easy to debunk.

Who’s the prosecutor Trump’s talking about?

In the call, Trump references Ukraine’s “very good” former prosecutor, Viktor Shokin. The former prosecutor general in Ukraine, Shokin is at the center of Trump’s allegation that former Vice-President Joe Biden improperly used his power to help his son, Hunter Biden. As Trump tells it, Biden was pushing for Shokin to be fired at the same time that he was investigating a natural gas firm with the younger Biden on its board. There are plenty of problems with Trump’s version of events — for starters, Shokin’s investigation into the oil company had gone dormant at the time of his firing — but perhaps most problematic in his call with Zelensky is the way Trump describes the former prosecutor.

Trump called Shokin “very good” and “very fair,” and asserted that he was treated badly. But that’s not quite right. As CNN notes, Shokin’s detractors were many, including “the Obama administration, American allies, the International Monetary Fund and Ukrainian anti-corruption activists.”

Shokin was widely faulted for declining to bring prosecutions of elites’ corruption, and he was even accused of hindering corruption investigations. His deputy, Vitaliy Kasko, resigned in February 2016, alleging that Shokin’s office was itself corrupt.

To consider such a person “very fair,” you’d have be pretty corrupt yourself.

What about the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine?

On page four of the White House memo, Zelensky brings up a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, whose name he recalls as Ivanovich. Zelensky may have had trouble recalling her name — it’s actually Marie Yovanovitch — but he remembers that she wasn’t his biggest fan. “She would not accept me as a new president well enough,” Zelensky said.

“Well, she’s going to go through some things,” Trump responded. It’s unclear what that means. In May of this year, Yovanovitch was recalled “ahead of her scheduled departure,” according to the Washington Post. In the preceding months, she had become a target of the right-wing media, with Donald Trump Jr. calling her a “joker” in a March tweet.

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Questions About the Trump-Zelensky Memo, Answered