America has unfortunately plunged into what is likely to be a long and divisive debate about corruption. Media reports of a conversation President Trump had July 25 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have swirled since allegations surfaced that President Trump had there asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for corruption. In the hopes of ending speculation about what he said, earlier today President Trump released a memorandum recounting the call. [Update: The controversy leading to release of the memorandum was sparked by reports an intelligence professional had filed a whistleblower complaint concerning President Trump and Ukraine. That complaint, released the morning of September 2, is here].
Unfortunately, the release is likely only to fuel ever more nasty, partisan debate. One controversy certain to arise is the memorandum’s accuracy. It is not a verbatim transcript of what the leaders said, a transcription of an audio recording of the call. Rather, it represents what one or more staff huriedley scribbled down while the two spoke; later others reviewed it. Did someone “scrub” more incriminating comments from the memo before its release? Is there a better record of the call? Will the person or persons who actually listened to the call come forward to testify to its accuracy? Or contest the accuracy?
A more critical point of contention is whether what President Trump said during the call is on its face a crime under American law. President Trump clearly asked President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Biden for criminal activity. The Federal Election Campaign Act makes it a crime for presidential candidates to receive contributions, defined as “anything of value,” from foreign citizens or governments. President Trump is a candidate for president in the 2020 election as is the former Vice President. Had Ukraine actually initiated an investigation of the Vice President, would that have been something of value under the election law? If it would have been, was President Trump’s solicitation of such a contribution a violation of the law? Or any other U.S. laws?
Is the fact that Mr. Biden is seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination relevant to the inquiry? That, were he to be the Democratic nominee, current polls show him decisively defeating President Trump?
Some reports allege President Trump personally held up critical military and economic assistance to the government of Ukraine, only releasing it under Congressional pressure. That will surely be the bitterest bone of contention, for if he used a denial or delay in providing aid as leverage to force Ukraine to open an investigation, that would constitute attempted bribery under American law and thus strong grounds for impeachment and removal from office.
Was there such a threat? As students of U.S. bribery law know, it need not have been overt; “a wink and a nod” suffices. Expect a great deal of argument over “winks and nods,” with partisans seeing none opponents seeing them everywhere
The only bright spot in this very dismal chapter in American history is release of memorandum of conversation. It provides at least some uncontested facts upon which partisans can build their cases. For those who have yet to read it, here it is Memorandum telephone conversation between Presidents Trump and Zelenskyy