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Discrepancy in White House Versions of First Trump-Zelensky Phone Call

On April 21, the White House issued a statement saying President Donald Trump called to congratulate Volodymyr Zelensky on becoming president of Ukraine. Trump “expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption,” the statement said.

But Trump did not discuss his commitment to help root out corruption, or any of the other policy issues mentioned in the April 21 statement, according to the official White House memo of that phone call, which was released today via tweet.

In his phone call, according to the call memo, Trump talked about the strength of the U.S. economy since his own election, how he will send someone “at a very, very high level” to Zelensky’s inauguration, and the Miss Universe Pageant, which Trump used to own. Trump put off any discussion of issues, saying that in the future they will have “a lot of things to talk about.”

We asked the White House about the discrepancy between the April 21 statement and the call memo released today, and it sent us an email that read, in part: “It is standard operating procedure for the National Security Council to provide readouts of the President’s phone calls with foreign leaders. This one was prepared by the NSC’s Ukraine expert.”

The call memo is not a transcript of the phone call. There is a note on all such memos that says, “A Memorandum of a Telephone Conversation (TELCON) is not a verbatim transcript of a discussion. The text in this document records the notes and recollections of Situation Room Duty Officers and NSC policy staff assigned to listen and memorialize the conversation in written form as the conversation takes place.”

We have written about the “caution” note several times when Trump has falsely claimed that the call memo of his July 25 phone call with Zelensky was an “exact transcript.” For example, in his closed deposition before the House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry, Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, a National Security Council staffer who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, testified that certain words and phrases were omitted from the White House-released memo of the call.

Specifically, Vindman said his notes of the meeting indicated that Trump said “there are recordings” of Vice President Joe Biden bragging about stopping the prosecution of Burisma Holdings, the energy company whose board employed Biden’s son, Hunter. But the call memo did not include a mention of the recordings. (As we’ve written, Biden did not brag about stopping the prosecution; Trump distorts the facts of that recording.)

Vindman also said in his deposition that Zelensky mentioned “Burisma” in his July 25 phone call, although the call memo showed Zelensky referring only to “the company,” without mentioning the firm’s name. 

So, some details of the issues discussed were lacking in that call memo. However, the issues themselves were referenced — contrary to the vast discrepancy between the White House statement and call memo of the April 21 phone conversation.

The White House released the April 21 statement — known as a “readout” — via an email from Jack Fitzpatrick of Bloomberg Government, who was the pool reporter covering the president that day in Washington, D.C.

White House statement, April 21: Readout of President Trump’s Call With Ukrainian President-Elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

President Donald J. Trump spoke today with President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskyy to congratulate him on his victory in Ukraine’s April 21 election. The President wished him success and called the election an important moment in Ukraine’s history, noting the peaceful and democratic manner of the electoral process. President Trump underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – within its internationally recognized borders – and expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.

In addition to the White House readout of the call, unnamed White House officials also have told reporters the president mentioned his concerns about corruption in that April call with Zelensky.

For example, a Nov. 14 Wall Street Journal article cited “two officials with direct knowledge” who described the call as “very brief” and said that in addition to offering introductory pleasantries, “Trump also encouraged Ukraine’s president-elect to follow through on his commitments to tackle corruption.”

The same day, CNN reported that a “person familiar with its [the phone call’s] contents” said that in addition to congratulations offered on Zelensky’s election victory, “Trump also encouraged Zelensky to continue going after corruption in Ukraine, but didn’t specifically mention the Bidens or the 2016 elections.”

But there is no evidence in the call memo that Trump brought up the issue of corruption with Zelensky in the April 21 call.

Trump did congratulate Zelensky and indicated U.S. support for Ukraine, according to the call memo. “We’re with you all the way,” Trump told Zelensky, the memo shows.

But instead of committing to help Ukraine with its reforms, democracy, prosperity and corruption — as the media statement said — Trump talked about the U.S. economy since he took office and the Miss Universe Pageant.

After congratulating Zelensky on his “incredible achievement,” Trump went on to say, “I guess, in a way, I did something similar. We’re making tremendous progress in the U.S. [United States] — we have the most tremendous economy ever.”

After Zelensky described Ukraine as a “wonderful country,” Trump agreed. “When I owned Miss Universe, they always had great people. Ukraine was always very well represented.”

Zelensky invited Trump to Ukraine for his inauguration, but Trump was noncommittal. Trump said he would send “somebody, at a minimum, at a very, very high level” to the inauguration.

According to the Aug. 12 whistleblower report, which triggered the impeachment inquiry, Vice President Mike Pence was scheduled to attend Zelensky’s swearing-in ceremony, but Trump canceled those plans on May 14 — just six days before the inauguration. Instead, Energy Secretary Rick Perry led the White House delegation to the May 20 inauguration.

The House committees investigating the president are seeking to determine if the cancellation of Pence’s trip to Ukraine in May was related to the president’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and unsupported allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The committees are also gathering evidence that Trump withheld congressionally authorized security aid to Ukraine in exchange for Zelensky’s public declaration that he will undertake those investigations.

Trump has maintained that one of the reasons he withheld security aid to Ukraine was because of concerns about corruption in the country. He told reporters on Sept. 23, “We want to make sure that country is honest. It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”