Conflicting White House accounts of first Trump-Zelenskiy call

Conflicting White House accounts of first Trump-Zelenskiy call

US President Donald Trump on Friday released the rough transcript of a phone call he had with the incoming president of Ukraine.

Mr Trump is holding it out as evidence he did nothing wrong.

But the memorandum shows how White House descriptions of Mr Trump’s communications with foreign leaders at times better reflect wishful thinking than the reality of the interactions.

As the House opened its second day of public impeachment hearings on Capitol Hill, Mr Trump released the unclassified record of his April 21 call with then President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people

The document bears little resemblance to the paragraph-long official summary of the conversation the White House released the same day as the 16-minute call.

The discrepancy highlights the gulf that often exists between the message that US national security officials want to deliver to world leaders and the one that is actually delivered by Mr Trump.

For years, US officials have stressed the importance of trying to support democratic norms and root out corruption in Ukraine, which has been fighting a war of attrition against Russian-backed separatists since Russia invaded and later annexed Crimea in 2014.

To that end, the official readout of the Zelenskiy call reported that Mr Trump noted the “peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process” that had led to Mr Zelenskiy’s victory in Ukraine’s presidential election.

But there is no record of that in the rough transcript released on Friday. Instead, it said Mr Trump praised a “fantastic” and “incredible” election.

Current and former administration officials said it was consistent with a pattern in which Mr Trump veers from – or ignores entirely – prepared talking points for his discussions with foreign leaders, and instead digresses into domestic politics or other unrelated matters.

President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Donald Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (Evan Vucci/AP)

In the Ukraine call, for example, Mr Trump praised the quality of the country’s contestants in a beauty pageant he used to oversee and compared Mr Zelenskiy’s election to his own in 2016.

“When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people,” Mr Trump told Mr Zelenskiy of his country.

The original readout also said Mr Trump “underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” But there is no indication of that in the rough transcript.

Likewise, the readout said the president expressed his commitment to help Ukraine “to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.”

The word “corruption” is not mentioned in the rough transcript of the actual call.

Corruption did feature prominently in Mr Trump’s second call with Mr Zelenskiy on July 25, the call that helped spark the impeachment drama.

Since the call occurred on a Sunday, the White House may not have updated the press release before it was publicly released

It is highly unusual for a president to release the rough transcripts of calls with foreign leaders, which are generated by voice transcription software and edited by officials listening in on the calls to ensure they are accurately memorialised.

Official readouts, by contrast, are issued as news releases meant to further foreign policy aims. They are typically the only public accounts of the calls that presidents have with their counterparts.

Several current and former administration officials told the Associated Press that the readouts of Mr Trump’s calls with foreign leaders are often pre-written, reflecting official US policy and what National Security Council officials hope the leaders will discuss and the talking points they provide to guide the president’s conversations.

Those readouts are supposed to be revised after the calls to reflect what actually transpired. But that does not always happen, according to seven current and former administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.

Such a revision did not happen in this case, according to a person familiar with the matter. The person said that, as usual, a draft readout of the call had been written in advance based on talking points and had been approved by then-National Security Adviser John Bolton.

That draft included reference to Mr Trump raising the issue of corruption, which the NSC had recommended, with specific talking points included in the president’s briefing materials.

But he did not raise the issue. And since the call occurred on a Sunday, the person said, the White House may not have updated the press release before it was publicly released.

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