It began with a phone call. And if the White House defense strategy pays off, it will also end with the reconstructed transcript of that contentious phone call between President Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
With the impeachment investigation into Trump now into its second week of public hearings, the strategy to protect the commander-in-chief has moved from quiet meetings at the White House and on Capitol Hill to television. And it shows a president in lockstep with his lieutenants in the House of Representatives.
“Read the transcrip!t” has become Trump’s latest slogan, delivered to journalists during his regular South Lawn question and answer sessions before leaving aboard Marine One. His campaign is selling it as a T-shirt, and he even mused during a recent interview with the Washington Examiner that he might read the transcript to the American public in the sort of presidential fireside chat pioneered by Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s to reassure a population rattled by the banking crisis and the Great Depression.
That it is not a verbatim transcript — rather a reconstruction drawing on the accounts of several ear witnesses — does not matter. House Republicans have circled the wagons with the text front and center to show that the flow of security assistance to Kyiv was not dependent on digging up dirt on Joe Biden and his family.
In a strategy memo circulated a day before the hearings began, Republican staff on the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and the Committee on Foreign Affairs laid out the transcript’s centrality to their defense.
“The summary of President Trump’s conversation with President Zelensky reflects no conditionality or pressure, and President Zelensky himself said he felt no pressure,” it read.
“President Trump never raised U.S. security assistance to President Zelensky, and ultimately the assistance was released and a presidential meeting occurred without Ukraine investigating the president’s rivals.”
Instead, it says, the transcript makes clear that the president has a “deep-seated, genuine” skepticism of Ukraine and its history of corruption.
White House officials have quietly been briefing journalists to look back at President Barack Obama’s stance and see a similar skepticism in play. Then, the administration ignored an impassioned plea from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko asking for military aid in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea.
“Blankets and night vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with blankets,” he concluded in a speech to Congress. It was enough to bring forth an extra $53 million in aid but no military assistance.
That changed when Trump came to power. He quickly approved a package of lethal aid that included the sale of $47 million of Javelin tank-buster missiles.
Given the Obama reluctance to deliver this kind of military assistance, it was only natural to keep such aid under constant review, said a senior administration official. Any pause or review was a normal, natural part of such aid programs — not evidence of a quid pro quo.
“Whenever taxpayer money is spent overseas, the president has made it an effort to ensure the money prioritizes U.S. interests abroad and that our allies are also paying their fair share,” said the official.
“The review of this money along with money intended for places like Pakistan and Northern Triangle is part of the president’s strategy to ensure that foreign assistance is used to further U.S. interests and in the best interests of the U.S. taxpayer.”
Furthermore, as Trump’s allies make clear, the government of Ukraine was not aware at the time of the July telephone call that the assistance had been suspended. Nor was it mentioned in the conversation.
“Donald Trump is the consummate deal-maker,” said another senior administration official. “If he wanted to use the assistance as leverage, he would have used the assistance as leverage, not kept it secret.”
The briefings and strategy document show the evolution of the Republican defense strategy, from criticism of process — the closed-door hearings and lopsided subpoena powers — to grappling with the substance of the allegations as the testimony moves on to television.
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