Why The Trump-Zelensky Call Is Just The ‘Tip Of The Iceberg’

President Donald Trump talks with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto on the phone about a trade agreement between the United States and Mexico, in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, Aug. 27, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The White House’s willingness to release such a damning record of the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky suggests its account of the call is just the “tip of the iceberg” in the mushrooming scandal, experts and former officials told TPM.

“This is clearly just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s already blown a gaping hole in the Titanic,” Michael Fuchs, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, told TPM.

Part of the reason the White House record of the call raises eyebrows goes to the nature of closed phone calls between world leaders. The U.S. side does not record them as a matter of policy, and instead relies on a combination of automatic voice recognition technology and old-fashioned note-taking by national security officials. This renders the record of the July 25 call something less than a definitive transcript.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and National Security Council staffer under the Clinton administration, told TPM that top White House officials usually serve as notetakers and sit in on such calls, under “normal administrations.”

“The normal way in which normal administrations in normal times do this is to as accurately portray the conversation as one actually can, including the nuance, to make it as close to a transcript as possible,” Daadler said. “This administration has done things different from day one.”

Fuchs argued that “we don’t know what was taken out of this document.” He added that, in part, that is because the Trump White House appears to have included damning information in the memorandum of the call that it released.

That encompasses a “favor” Trump asked for from Zelensky after the Ukrainian leader brought up military aid.

“How much worse does this get?” Fuchs told TPM.

Trump’s language — as relayed by the call record — is typical of him, and blunter than what many perceive to be the reticent, diplomatic language that leaders use on official calls.

But Daalder suggested that “generally, leaders speak directly to each other, particularly if they want something.”

“Most of these phone calls are purely congratulatory,” Daalder said, adding that there is usually “something that tries to establish some connection, some relationship, or trying to get something done that needs to be done.”

In this case, the subject matter itself was explosive: convincing Ukraine to help with an investigation of the Democratic frontrunner and probe the origins of the Trump-Russia probe.

Fuchs said that Zelensky’s side would likely have paid close attention to what Trump said on the call.

“The power that comes with the office of the president, whether it is explicitly stated a threat or not, is in itself pressure,” he said. “Every word there is going to be parsed very carefully so the message sent by the president is loud and clear.”

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