Notes From Trump's Phone Call: What Did The Leaders Say?

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NOEL KING, HOST:

When a U.S. president talks to a foreign leader, notes are taken. This morning, we're getting a look at some of those notes. They're from a phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president on July 25. And the big question here is did President Trump pressure his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate a political opponent, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter?

NPR's Ryan Lucas just got back from the Justice Department. He's been reading those documents. In fact, we all have been. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hello there.

KING: OK. So what do these notes about the call say, exactly?

LUCAS: So first off, we'll set the stage. This is a five-page document. It's put together, as you said, from notes taken by national security staff. It's not necessarily a word-for-word transcript, though. What it says, though, is the following. Essentially, President Trump asked Ukraine's president to look into Biden and Biden's son. He brings up the allegations that when Biden was vice president that he pushed a Ukrainian prosecutor out of office to protect his son, who worked for a Ukrainian company that was, at one point, under investigation. People have looked into this. There's no evidence to support that.

But Trump is asking Ukraine's president to look into it. And what the Ukrainian president tells Trump in response is that the Ukrainian president will have the opportunity to appoint the next prosecutor. He says, we will work on this investigation. Trump, also in the span of this 30-minute call, tells the Ukrainian leader to talk to Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and Attorney General Bill Barr about this investigation, about these matters, and to figure it out.

KING: Which is weird, right? That he would say, talk to my personal lawyer?

LUCAS: It is unusual.

KING: OK. From what you read, you said the president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to do some things. Was he pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart? Like, can we say that?

LUCAS: In many ways, that's a subjective assessment. I think what is clear is that in a number of instances, he tells the Ukrainian president to talk to his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and to figure it out. And it's not once. It's not twice. It's a couple of times that he brings this up. And the fact that he's bringing up a political rival at all is something that Democrats, of course, are quite outraged about, I think, we could say.

KING: This memo itself notes (laughter) at the end that it is not a transcript. Are there concerns, given that this was provided by the Trump administration, that things may have been left out of it?

LUCAS: I think that that's something that we'll have to wait and see what Democrats have to say. I, at this point, having just been in the bowels of the Justice Department, do not know what quite the reaction of Democrats is yet. But I think that that's a question that we may hear them raise as this day unspools.

KING: OK. And we also learned today that this matter was referred to the Department of Justice as a possible campaign finance matter. Can you explain that?

LUCAS: So in the - all of this, remember, dates back to this whistleblower complaint that was filed by a member of the Intelligence Community to the Intelligence Community inspector general. That complaint now, of course, is the root of this standoff between the administration and Congress. And what we learned from this Office of Legal Counsel memo - this is an office in the Justice Department, a memo that they put out - we learned a little bit more about the whistleblower, and we learn a little bit more about what the whistleblower was concerned about. And what the whistleblower flagged, according to this memo, could be viewed in the eyes of the Intelligence Community inspector general as a campaign finance violation. Essentially, that the president may have been soliciting a campaign finance contribution from a foreign entity.

And what DOJ senior - DOJ officials say is that this went through the proper channels. The Criminal Division of the Justice Department looked at it. They came to the conclusion that, no, this does not qualify as a campaign finance violation. There's not enough there. They couldn't determine whether there was a thing of value. They couldn't quantify the value of what a investigation by a foreign government would be. Therefore, this does not proceed.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There still is so much to discuss here so let's bring another voice into the conversation with NPR's Ryan Lucas. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith's on the line from the White House. Hi there, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: Let me ask you both. I just want to work through a few essential impressions. I'm looking at this document. It says unclassified in red. Then you've got these five pages. It's an interesting type font. It looks almost like an old IBM typewriter or something was used for this. I don't know...

KEITH: I think it's Courier.

INSKEEP: You think it's Courier? OK. Thank you very much. A lot of markings on it and so forth. But the words are there. And the first impression that I have is that getting information about the Biden family is the main subject of this phone call. It's five pages long. There are some standard greetings. There's a congratulations. There are some other things, like a mention of ambassadors. President Trump was just getting rid of the ambassador to Ukraine and replacing them with another person.

But then he gets down to business, and the business is Joe Biden and, please, talk to my lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Does that sound appropriate to you guys? Or not - does it sound correct to you guys, I should say?

KEITH: Right. That is a correct description. You know, the first person to bring up Rudy Giuliani is, in fact, the president of Ukraine because Rudy Giuliani had been reaching out to Ukrainian officials by the time this call happened. Then President Trump on three separate occasions says you should talk to Rudy Giuliani, you should look into this, let's get to the bottom of this. Rudy has lots of information.

This is the president of the United States directing the president of another country to talk to his personal attorney, who has been very public about the fact that he was trying to dig up dirt on one of the president's political opponents in Ukraine.

LUCAS: That's right. I spoke with Rudy Giuliani over the weekend, and he provided some of the details of what he's been doing regarding Ukraine and these conversations, and he confirmed that he has indeed had conversations with Ukrainian officials about this. The prosecutor who was pushed out back in 2016, he spoke with him earlier this year. And then importantly, he also spoke with an adviser to President Zelenskiy of Ukraine. He spoke with him in early August. Met with him for a lunch, about an hour and a half lunch, in Spain. They discussed the allegations that Giuliani had brought along about Biden.

Giuliani provided some information that he had gathered and basically told the Ukrainian adviser that, this looks very suspicious to me, this looks very suspicious to us. I'm not telling you what conclusion to come to, but I think that this is something that would be worth looking into.

INSKEEP: I want to mention another detail here because the president, in asking for an investigation of his political rival's family, says, quote, "I would like you to do us a favor. If you can look into it, would you please look into this? It's horrible." This is something the president says. Now, in public remarks over the last few days, the president has suggested this was perfectly appropriate, it was a perfect conversation because he was asking about conversation in Ukraine.

In looking at this five-page, half-hour phone call, I don't see any other corruption case that the president mentions at all, in any way whatsoever, except the one of political interest to him. Is that correct?

KEITH: That's right. That is absolutely correct. You know, there's another thing to note here. This call happened about a week after President Trump put a hold on military aid to Ukraine. Ukraine has been - needed that aid to push back against aggression from Russia. And this call happened one day after Robert Mueller testified before the House. President Trump, in this call, according to the transcript, says, as you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance. And then he goes on to say, whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it, if that's possible.

President Trump, in this call, also did talk about 2016. And it's unclear what he's talking about, but he seems to be asking Ukraine to investigate a conspiracy theory about how the investigation started.

INSKEEP: OK. So there is one mention of something else, as well. Now, the president himself has also been speaking today. He did take some questions from reporters. He made a number of remarks within the hour here. And let's just listen to a little bit of the president today defending his conduct.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Just so you understand, it's the single greatest witch hunt in American history. Probably in history. But in American history. It's a disgraceful thing. The letter was a great letter, meaning the letter revealing the call, that was done at the insistence of myself and other people that read it. It was a friendly letter. There was no pressure. The way you had that built up, that call, it was going to be the call from hell. It turned out to be a nothing call, other than a lot of people said, I never knew you could be so nice.

INSKEEP: Tamara Keith, what do you make of that?

KEITH: Well, the president is essentially saying, I was super friendly. This was nice. This was not - this was not pressure. Adam Schiff, the Democrat who heads the Intelligence Committee, said in a tweet, the transcript of the call reads like a classic mob shakedown. We do a lot for Ukraine. There's not much reciprocity. I have a favor to ask. Investigate my opponent. My people will be in touch. Nice country you got there.

INSKEEP: Somebody may try to summarize this call differently than Schiff did, but all of those elements are in there. He does mention, we give lots of aid to Ukraine, other people don't do it. We're very important to you, and I'd like you to do me - I'd like you to do me a favor.

KEITH: But what the president will say is, but I didn't say I'm taking away your aid. The president will say - and his allies have been saying already - there's no quid pro quo here. Democrats say, quid pro quo isn't the bar.

INSKEEP: Well, there's just also the question - I mean, you can think about this circumstance. If the president of the United States calls you up, the president of the most powerful nation on earth calls you up, and says I'd like you to do us a favor, is that in itself pressure, or not?

KEITH: Well, and it's a small country that is very reliant on the United States and wants a show of United States support and force as it tries to push back on Russia.

INSKEEP: So - go ahead, Ryan, please.

LUCAS: We should also mention that Ukraine, there continues to be a simmering conflict in Ukraine's east between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed forces. So there is a need, an urgent need, on Ukraine's part for help from the United States.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about what is not yet disclosed. We now have notes - not a word-for-word transcript, necessarily, but notes of this phone conversation between the two presidents. But there is the matter of a whistleblower who seems to have brought this phone call to our attention in the first place. What is known and what is still to be released about that, Ryan Lucas?

LUCAS: Well, the director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire is going to be on the Hill tomorrow testifying before the House Intelligence Committee about this complaint. We learned from the OLC memo a little bit more about the whistleblower. There was an indication in the Intelligence Community inspector general's letter to the Justice Department that there was perhaps indications of political bias on the part of the complainant, but not enough to raise concerns about the matter that the whistleblower was actually flagging.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And now we have the notes of the phone conversation, and we know there was some there - there.

LUCAS: Correct.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas. Thanks for your reporting today. I really appreciate it.

LUCAS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we were also talking with NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks to you.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: And we are, of course, discussing the president's phone conversation with the president of Ukraine in which he asked, I would like you to do us a favor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.