By Aamer Madahni and Jonathan Lemire
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Friday released the summary transcript of an April congratulatory call with Ukraine President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the latest salvo in the White House struggle to blunt Democrats’ contention that Trump abused his power in calling on a foreign leader to involve himself in the U.S. presidential election.
The move by the White House is certain to be framed by Democrats as an attempt to muddy the waters of the House impeachment inquiry into whether the president improperly pressured the Eastern European leader to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son.
The 16-minute call, which the president placed from Air Force One flying back to Washington after a weekend at his Florida resort, makes no mention of Biden or corruption, though it is filled with flattery from the new Ukrainian leader and invitations from Zelenskiy for Trump to visit Kiev.
“You are, as I said, a great example. We are hoping we can expand on our job as you did. You will always, also, be a great example for so many,” said Zelenskiy according to the memo. “I know how busy you are but if it’s possible for you to come to the inauguration ceremony, that would be a great, great thing for you to do to be with us on that day.”
The release of the April call comes as House investigators held two days of public hearings this week with U.S. diplomats who have raised concerns that the Trump White House may have misused his presidential powers by withholding military aid as he called on Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, a top political rival.
But Trump in recent days has attempted to spotlight the earlier April 21 call, one in which he spoke to Zelenskiy soon after he won a landslide victory over Ukraine’s then-President Petro Poroshenko.
Trump in comments to reporters last week called the April call transcript “very important.”
“You’ll read the second call, and you’ll tell me if there’s anything wrong with it,” he said. The memo was released minutes before former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch began her testimony. The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes, read the rough transcript aloud into the congressional record.
“The President took the unprecedented steps to declassify and release the transcripts of both of his phone calls” with Zelenskiy “so that every American can see he did nothing wrong,” said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham.
In that first call, Zelenskiy, taking power against the backdrop of Russian menace, urgently tried to build a relationship with Trump, extolling Ukraine’s food and people while repeatedly asking the president to come visit. Trump demurred but pledged that a high-level delegation would attend Zelenskiy’s inauguration.
Vice President Mike Pence was slated to attend the Kiev ceremony but his trip was canceled. Rick Perry, the energy secretary, led the delegation.
Shortly after the call in April, the White House released a statement noting that Trump congratulated Zelenskiy on his election victory. The statement also noted that Trump stressed his desire “to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.”
But the rough transcript the White House released Friday is barely recognizable from the readout the White House released at the time. The readout said Trump expressed his commitment to help Ukraine “root out corruption.” Corruption did not come up on the call.
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Army officer assigned to the National Security Council, said during a closed-door deposition last month that the two calls between the president were starkly different in tone.
“What I could say is the tone in the call on the 21st of April was very positive, in my assessment,” Vindman said. “The call, the tone of the call on July 25th was not. It was…I’m struggling for the words, but it was not a positive call. It was dour. If I think about it some more, I could probably come up with some other adjectives, but it was just — the difference between the calls was apparent.”
Fiona Hill, the former top Russia policy specialist at the National Security Council, in her deposition described the April exchange between the two presidents was a “short congratulatory call.”
The first call was marked as unclassified, for official use only. The second call was classified as Secret/Originator Controlled/No Foreign Nationals and was placed on a highly classified National Security Council server.
The rough transcript released Friday appeared to show some warmth between the two leaders with Trump extending congratulations on the electoral victory.
“I think you will do a great job. I have many friends in Ukraine who know you and like you. I have many friends from Ukraine and they think — frankly — expected you to win,” Trump said. “I have no doubt you will be a fantastic president.”
Democrats have said that Trump withheld military aid and the possibility of a White House visit, a clear symbol of alliance between the two governments, unless Zelenskiy investigated the Bidens. Trump, in the April call, did offer a visit to Washington.
“When you’re settled in and ready, I’d like to invite you to the White House,” he said. “We’ll have a lot of things to talk about, but we’re with you all the way.”
Zelenskiy has yet to visit Washington, though the two men met in September in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. In the April call, the Ukrainian leader vowed to practice his English for their eventual meeting — Trump responded with a laugh, “I could not do that in your language!” — and repeatedly extolled his country and asked Trump to come visit, even if not for the inauguration.
“Well, I agree with you about your country, and I look forward to it,” Trump said. “When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people.”