About seven minutes into his July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.S. President Donald Trump shifted the largely cordial and collegial conversation to a new topic.
"I would like you to do us a favor, though," Trump said, according to a memorandum of the call released by the White House on September 25.
Those 10 words could be the legal linchpin for congressional Democrats now embarking on an impeachment inquiry. And the call contains other revelations that could affect not only Trump's political future, but Zelenskiy's as well.
'I Would Like You To Do Us A Favor'
In their conversation, Trump repeatedly reminds Zelenskiy that the United States is a major supporter -- financially, militarily, politically -- of Ukraine, particularly in its ongoing conflict with Russia. And Trump contrasts U.S. aid -- upward of $1 billion since 2014 -- with that of European allies like Germany, which Trump has repeatedly criticized for not spending more, for NATO, for example.
After Zelenskiy expresses thanks for past U.S. military aid and echoes Trump with his own criticisms of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanual Macron, Trump shifts the discussion.
"I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it," Trump says.
If, as many Democrats assert, Trump was pushing Zelenskiy to reopen an investigation into a Ukrainian company whose board of directors included the son of Trump's potential Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and was willing to withhold congressionally authorized military aid to get him to do it, it could be cause for impeachment.
While the company is not named specifically, the favor is for Zelenskiy to reopen a dormant investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company whose board Hunter Biden joined in 2014.
Democrats assert that Trump was essentially trying to bargain with Zelenskiy: Investigate Biden's son, and I'll release U.S. aid -- aid that it turns out had been frozen by the White House for months.
The phone call isn't entirely clear in this regard. There is no quid pro quo on what that sort of transaction is proposed. And at least in U.S. legal definitions, there needs to be an explicit exchange of something for a transaction to be considered, for example, bribery, or corrupt more broadly.
'Poor Performance By Mueller'
The memo also reveals that Trump suggests that Zelenskiy cooperate with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in investigating the origins of a U.S. criminal probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The probe, headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and concluded in March, grew out of an FBI probe into interactions between Trump associates and Russian officials and has dogged Trump's presidency.
It included the investigation of Trump's first campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who was fired by Trump in August 2016 after details of Manafort's lobbying work for Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians were published.
Read in the context of the entire call, in the context of Trump's long-held grievances against the Mueller investigation and its origins, in the context of Ukraine's dependence on the U.S. largesse, and in the context of Biden, who is expected to be a strong challenger to Trump in the 2020 presidential election: it's clear that a message was being sent to Zelenskiy.
Sycophant Or Servant Of The People?
Zelenskiy rode his popularity as the star of a Ukrainian comedy series to a resounding election victory in April. And despite being a political neophyte, he has shown a deft touch in governing atop Ukraine's sharp-elbowed political world.
That deft touch includes the ability to cajole and flatter where necessary, something that was on full display in the July 25 call with Trump.
"I would like to confess to you that I had an opportunity to learn from you," he tells Trump. "We used quite a few of your skills and knowledge and were able to use it as an example to our elections."
Zelenskiy calls Trump "a great teacher" and uses Trump's signature campaign phrase "drain the swamp." He agrees with Trump "not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent" as Trump questions European leaders' dedication to the Ukrainian cause. Zelenskiy insists he is replacing Ukraine's ambassador in Washington, and will accede to Trump's wishes that he and his advisers work with Giuliani.
"I also wanted to·tell you that we are friends. We are great· friends and you, Mr. President, have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership," he says.
While perhaps cringe-worthy, Zelenskiy's remarks may be seen as smart diplomacy and are unlikely to jeopardize his position at home. He continues to bask in the glow of not only his April election, but the July parliamentary vote that gave his political party a majority in the legislature. Most Ukrainians don't follow the political storms buffeting Washington very closely, having bigger domestic concerns, and are likely to cut Zelenskiy some slack.
Who Is The 'Very Good' Prosecutor?
During the conversation, Zelenskiy tries to convince Trump that his administration -- then in its third month -- is a solid team, containing, as Zelenskiy is quoted as saying, "the best and most experienced people." He tells Trump that any investigation conducted in Ukraine will be done "openly and candidly," though he does not specify who or what exactly is being investigated.
Trump then responds to Zelenskiy's comment, and refers to Ukraine's prosecutor-general.
"Good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who·was very good and he was shut down and that's really unfair," he says. "A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down, and you had some very bad people involved."
The transcript does not specify who the person is.
At first glance, it would appear to be Viktor Shokin. Trump, and his conservative allies, have repeatedly pointed to a speech that Biden gave in 2018 where he bragged about his efforts to persuade then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to fire Shokin.
But according to a complaint filed by an unidentified whistle-blower in the U.S. intelligence community, and released one day after the phone call record was released, the prosecutor in question was Yuriy Lutsenko.
Trump appears to think Zelenskiy would keep Lutsenko, and that Lutsenko could be the prosecutor who ended up carrying out Trump's requests.
Back To Biden
Lutsenko had been Ukraine's top prosecutor since May 2016, when he took over from Shokin.
Initially welcomed following his appointment in 2015, Shokin became the focus of opposition from U.S. and European governments, who saw him as slow-walking high-profile corruption prosecutions.
In the administration of President Barack Obama, then-Vice President Biden was the point person on its Ukraine policy, as Washington sought to bolster Ukraine following Russia's annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea and the outbreak of fighting in Ukraine's eastern regions.
The Obama administration, with Biden at the point, made clear that its backing for $1 billion in financial assistance would be contingent on Shokin being fired. In September 2015, Geoffrey Pyatt, then the U.S. ambassador, gave a pointed speech in Kyiv in which he criticized Shokin publicly.
Shokin was dismissed by parliament in March 2016.
At the heart of the attacks by Trump and his Republican allies is the assertion that Biden sought to get Shokin fired to stop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, where Biden's son Hunter was reportedly making $50,000 a month to serve on the board.
There is no evidence that firing Shokin to protect his son was Biden's motivation. Biden has repeatedly denied this. The push to get rid of Shokin was shared by European officials, who welcomed his dismissal in 2016. Moreover, Lutsenko himself later said there was no indication of wrongdoing by either Biden.
Lutsenko In The Spotlight
Lutsenko, a former interior minister who served jail time for charges that he and European officials described as politically motivated, became prosecutor-general despite having no law degree.
In March, Lutsenko made unusual comments about the then-U.S. ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch. Lutsenko asserted that he had been given a list of people whom he was ordered not to prosecute.
Yovanovitch was later recalled prematurely from her post in Kyiv.
Lutsenko later retracted his assertion about Yovanovitch, in comments to a Ukrainian news site.
He was also a source for several articles in the U.S. newspaper The Hill in which he asserted, among other things, that Ukrainian officials had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, and that Biden's pressure to fire Shokin was aimed at protecting Biden's son.
In May, however, Lutsenko reversed himself, and said there was no active investigation into Burisma Holdings, and its tycoon owner, and there was no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.
In the call with Zelenskiy, Trump disparaged Yovanovitch, saying she was "bad news" and that "she's going to go through some things."
At the time of his conversation with Trump, Zelenskiy had already publicly made clear that Lutsenko would be leaving his post, but it is unclear how much Trump had been briefed on the subject.
What is clear is that Zelenskiy sought to give assurances that the next prosecutor-general would be his man: "Since we have won the absolute majority in our parliament; the next prosecutor-general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue."
Lutsenko resigned on August 29.