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What lawmakers learned from Trump’s Ukraine call memo

The release of a five-page memo describing President Trump's July phone call with Ukraine's president revealed new details of Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine. The text shows that immediately after Volodymr Zelensky brought up military aid, Trump asked him for "a favor." Lisa Desjardins reports, then joins Yamiche Alcindor and Judy Woodruff for more on reactions from Trump and Congress.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Questions of impeachment continue to swirl, as new details emerge about President Trump's actions with Ukraine shine a spotlight on the limits of executive power.

    It all comes a day after the speaker of the House of Representatives announced a formal impeachment inquiry.

    Our Lisa Desjardins begins with the latest.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Another rapid-fire day of news centering around President Trump. He was at the U.N. meeting with world leaders today.

    But the headlines came from his decision to declassify and release a five-page memo describing a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The text is critical to the fast-rising impeachment debate.

    It shows President Zelensky bringing up the military, Javelin missiles he wants to buy from the United States. Immediately following that, President Trump asks for what he says is a favor: to look into CrowdStrike, the company that concluded Russia was to blame for hacking into Democratic Party e-mail in 2016, a conclusion the president has questioned.

    After Zelensky responds, stressing the ethics of Ukrainian investigations, President Trump next says he has heard about a Ukrainian prosecutor who was unfairly shut down.

    That may have been a reference to this man, Viktor Shokin, whom the U.S. saw as corrupt and Joe Biden, while he was vice president, tried to have fired. A few sentences later, Mr. Trump says: "There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that."

    That was a reference to Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a gas company in Ukraine that was investigated for corruption. The Bidens were mentioned three times. Attorney General Barr up multiple times as well. So did the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Mr. Trump said he was going to have Attorney General Barr "give you a call, and we will get to the bottom of it."

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    What those notes reflect is a classic mafia-like shakedown of a foreign leader.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said the call was damning.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Ukraine understood exactly what was being asked of it. Ukraine understood exactly what they needed from the United States. And that a president of the United States would interfere with our national security, would interfere with the national security of our ally, and do so for the elicit purpose of trying to advance his election campaign, having already sought for help in his first presidential campaign, would now abuse the power of his office yet again, this time to seek the help of another nation in his presidential campaign, is the most fundamental betrayal of his oath of office.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    As it happens also today:

  • President Donald Trump:

    He's made me more famous than I…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    … was a scheduled in-person meeting between Mr. Trump and the Ukrainian president.

    In an extraordinary moment, Volodymyr Zelensky was asked if he was pressured to investigate Biden.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky:

    I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic open elections, elections of USA. No, you — sure, but we had, I think, good phone call.

    It was normal. Nobody pushed — pushed me.

  • President Donald Trump:

    In other words, no pressure.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Mr. Trump was confident, pointing to poll numbers.

    But, later, Zelensky, speaking in his native tongue, seemed to clarify that he did not pressure anyone in Ukraine as a result.

    Meantime, another thread of the July phone call involved the Department of Justice, which announced today that the original whistle-blower account raised a possible criminal act by the president on campaign finance charges.

    But according to a Justice Department spokesperson, after reviewing the controversial call, prosecutors could not make out that there was a criminal campaign finance violation.

    The Justice Department also issued a statement that the president has not spoken with the attorney general about having Ukraine investigate anything related to former Vice President Biden or his son.

    On Capitol Hill, many Republicans circled around the president.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.:

    From my point of view, to impeach any president over a phone call like this would be insane.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Many, like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, echoed the president's calls for an investigation into Biden.

  • Sen. Lindsey Graham:

    Vice President Biden is a good man. I have enjoyed a good relationship with him.

    But I can assure you that if any Republican family member was engaged in conduct like this, it would raise questions. A lot of people felt the guy was corrupt. But the one thing that I think is — has to be dealt with there is that the son of the vice president was receiving a lot of money from the Ukraine and some of the sources of the funds were under investigation by the prosecutor.

    I don't know what the right answer is. I just hope somebody will look at it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The spotlight will likely remain on the Capitol tomorrow, where the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, is set to testify about the original whistle-blower complaint.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, Yamiche, the decision by the White House to release this memo based on that phone conversation, why did they do this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, that question is really at the heart of today. Why would the White House take the risk of releasing at least some details of this call between President Trump and the president of the Ukraine?

    There are two answers to that question. The first is the president obviously thinks that this call helps him in some way. The second answer is that there was public pressure to release this call and that the White House had no — no choice but to release this call.

    The president at his press conference today said that he hated to do this. He said that he felt as though he had to do this because there's a lot of — quote — "fake news," and that he felt like Democrats were lying about him.

    The White House I have been talking to — the White House aides I have been talking to all day say that this really exonerates the president. They say that it's OK for the president to bring up the Bidens because it's perfectly part of his role as president.

    But Democrats are really pushing back on that. But this is a calculated risk by the president and by the White House.

    And I have been talking to some people that are close to Nancy Pelosi and close to other Democrats who say that they're taking their own risk by announcing this formal impeachment inquiry.

    So, what we're seeing is both sides taking risks here, and today the White House essentially made the decision that this call was OK to release and that the public should see it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, what are you hearing from the White House about how they see the political impact of this, the reaction among Republicans on the Hill and so forth?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump is really trying to reset the narrative when it comes to this call.

    He's trying to argue that Democrats were out to get him, that this was all planned to ruin his time at the United Nations, and he's been trying to push that message to GOP lawmakers.

    Today, early this morning, the White House called several senators into the White House, and they had first a conversation about the transcript, or the supposed transcript — it's not a verbatim transcript.

    But they also had a conversation about GOP messaging. The problem, Judy, they accidentally e-mailed their messaging to House Democrats. So, the Democrats got a list of all the things that Republicans wanted to say today.

    And on that list was Republicans saying there was no quid pro quo. It was the idea that the real problem here is not the phone call, but the leak and the fact that we know about this phone call.

    It's also important to talk about the political implications. The Trump campaign manager for the 2020 election bid, Brad Parscale, he put out numbers today that said, in the last 24 hours, since Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry, they have raised $5 million off of this.

    So they're saying that this is really motivating their base and motivating fund-raisers to give to their campaign. So this is all going to be something to watch as we go forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now, Lisa, let me come back to you.

    We know that Speaker Pelosi, when she announced this, this impeachment inquiry, we didn't get a lot of details. What are we learning about how this is going to work?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, this is still firming up.

    But here's what we know right now about the Democrats impeachment process first. There are six committees that have now been empowered to include their investigations, already ongoing investigations, as part of this impeachment process.

    Those committees are being tasked with making their cases to the House Judiciary Committee. That is the committee that will weigh the evidence in the end, and decide what articles of impeachment move forward.

    Then, the House Judiciary Committee would vote on any articles of impeachment, then the full House. But, Judy, it's interesting that, today, we're seeing so much news about this kind of supposed transcript. There's more and more focus on it, Judy.

    But, actually, I know from sources in the House that House Democrats are now considering, they're weighing the option of only focusing on this particular issue, this phone call, this exchange of the president and what was happening there. They may leave everything else on the table, because they think this is stronger than anything else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So this could have a very significant impact on the — on what that inquiry looks like, what they focus on.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's exactly right.

    And we saw just in the last few minutes, actually, House members exiting from reading the complaint itself from the whistle-blower, which was released just in the past couple of hours. Congress men and women have just had the chance to read it.

    Democrats coming out have been saying that it is significant, that it does raise even more concerns. And House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said specifically, it is well-written and it is written in a way that now they have things to follow up on, more witnesses and more documents.

    They can't say who those are because it's classified right now. But there is more information getting in the hands of House Democrats and Republicans tonight.

    Republicans, meanwhile, by the way, most of them are, as we reported, on the president's side, not all. Mitt Romney, a senator from Utah, former presidential candidate, said that he found things to be concerned about. There was concern for him in what he read of that phone call this morning.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we will see how they're reacting as this whistle-blower information comes out.

    And just finally, Lisa, what about the rest of the congressional agenda? You were talking to us about how that is going to be affected by all this focus now on impeachment.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Right.

    These are the folks that are supposed to govern us, the president and Congress. There are several issues that now could be in jeopardy because of, obviously, even more tense relationships here.

    At the top of that list, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal, which the president would like to get passed. But even he mentioned today that he is not sure that that's going to get through the Congress.

    Then, after that, gun violence, something the president had said he was interested in, but, Judy, had not actually put forth a proposal on yet. And then after that, prescription drug prices.

    These are all three issues that there was talk about maybe bipartisan negotiating, perhaps a deal coming through. And now we have to watch them, because it seems that those are all going to be made more difficult because of the atmosphere of impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's fast-moving. So much to follow.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Thank you to both of you, to Lisa and to Yamiche. We appreciate it.

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