Trump's Defense Of Ukraine Call

Oct 31, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 10:15 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today the House of Representatives votes on a resolution to take the impeachment inquiry into a new, more public phase. It's expected to pass, but with a vote that goes largely along party lines. Earlier this week, as President Trump was boarding Air Force One, he delivered a message to his Republican allies...

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So one thing I said, I'd rather go into the details of the case rather than process.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith has more.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: If you had to sum up President Trump's defense in one sentence, it would be, I had a very good conversation - or, as he implored in all caps on Twitter, read the transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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TRUMP: It's a conversation taken down and transcribed - a perfect conversation.

KEITH: That was Trump in a recent interview with Sean Hannity on Fox News. Though Trump refers to it as a transcript, in reality, it's a rough call log. And recent testimony indicates it is missing some words and phrases.

Trump used the interview to lay out his case. And it goes something like this - there was no quid pro quo on the call itself. Yes, Trump had put military assistance to Ukraine on hold. And, yes, he asked Ukraine's president to launch investigations that would benefit him politically, including into a leading 2020 rival, Joe Biden. But, the argument goes, Trump never explicitly linked those things on the call. I recently asked Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway why it isn't a quid pro quo.

KELLYANNE CONWAY: He never mentions 2020. He never mentions Biden as a political opponent. He never mentions aid.

KEITH: Quick fact check here - while Trump doesn't specifically say on the call that Biden is running for president, everyone knew he was. But Trump campaign spokesman Marc Lotter appearing on MSNBC yesterday argued it doesn't matter because there is nothing wrong with asking another country to investigate a political opponent.

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MARC LOTTER: I think it's entirely appropriate for the president of the United States to ask a new administration that's coming in on an anti-corruption platform to make sure they're following through with their commitments and also look at these questions that have been raised, whether it is now about Joe Biden in Ukraine, now China.

KEITH: For the record, there's no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden. Trump and his defenders say it isn't a question of what he asked Zelenskiy to do. It's a matter of whether Trump was applying pressure. And the president insists he was very nice.

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TRUMP: There was no pressure. And you know there was - and by the way, you know there was no pressure. All you have to do is see it, what went on on the call.

KEITH: After all, he told Hannity, he knew people were listening.

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TRUMP: Do you think I'm going to say something wrong when I feel that there's 25 or 30 or two or 10 or something? But there are a lot of people on these calls.

KEITH: Even many Republicans are on record saying the call wasn't perfect. Some go so far as to say it was improper. But the question now is, was it impeachable? In a series of closed-door depositions, House Democrats are filling out the context around the call. They have testimony from White House and State Department officials saying that defense assistance and a White House meeting for Zelenskiy were conditioned on Trump getting the investigations he wanted. But Trump's defenders, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, say none of that matters...

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KEVIN MCCARTHY: The money was released September 11. Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money - nothing. To have a quid pro quo, you have to exchange, both sides, for another thing. Nothing transformed. So why are you trying to create something out of nothing?

KEITH: By the time the money was finally released, Congress had been alerted to the existence of the whistleblower complaint, the Justice Department had been involved and members of Congress from both parties had been applying pressure to the White House to lift President Trump's hold on the aid. Continuing to hold it back had become politically untenable, which leads to the final Trump defense - attack the messenger. Trump says he's the victim of a deep state campaign to take him out led by bureaucrats who never wanted to see him elected in the first place.

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TRUMP: Here's the problem. He's a never Trumper (ph), and his lawyer's a never Trumper.

KEITH: Trump was talking about Ambassador William Taylor, who, like many of the other witnesses, was recruited by Trump's team to join the administration. Now some of these witnesses could soon be called to testify in open session with cameras rolling, and the public will be able to judge for themselves whether they are credible and whether the testimony they offer is as damaging as Democrats have said it is.

Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.