The voice of a gangster
To anyone familiar with the life and times of Donald Trump, there was nothing surprising in the tone of his July 25 conversation with the new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump spoke in the oblique yet perfectly clear language of a Mafia don who knows what he wants and how to enforce his will.
The dialogue between the two presidents, as seen in a transcript released this week, sounds like a scene from 'The Godfather" or a wiretap of the office of Trump's late attorney Roy M. Cohn, who represented the infamous mob bosses Carmine Galante, Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and John Gotti. (For details, see the excellent new film "Where's My Roy Cohn?" whose title is a Trump quote.)
The transcript opens with Zelensky flattering Trump obsequiously and at great length -- as every head of state is now instructed to do -- before hinting that he is "almost ready" to receive new Javelin missiles to defend his country from Russian invaders.
Trump responds by reminding Zelensky of how much his little country owes the United States: "I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than the European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are. ... I think it's something you want to look at but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine. I wouldn't say that it's reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very good to Ukraine."
Knowing that Zelensky badly needs something, Trump tells him how to make the relationship more reciprocal: "I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike," a reference to the cybersecurity firm whose work for the Democrats in 2016 figures in many right-wing conspiracy theories about the "deep state" and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Then Trump states his demand: "I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it." Even now it is startling to see him draw Attorney General William Barr into these self-serving and partisan machinations, which he describes to Zelensky as "very important."
The American president had another favor to demand from the cringing Zelensky, who mentions that he and his staff have already sought to help "Mr. Giuliani," Trump's personal lawyer who has spent months attempting to fabricate evidence of wrongdoing in Ukraine against Democrats, especially former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who had been on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
"Mr. Giuliani is a highly respected man ... and I would like him to call you," replies Trump. "I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General." Here is the president of the United States pairing the nation's chief law enforcement officer with his personal attorney in a tawdry partisan plot to smear American citizens -- who happen to be his political rivals.
"Rudy very much knows what's happening and he is a very capable guy," boasts Trump. "If you could speak with him that would be great. ... The other thing, 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 so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it ... it sounds horrible to me." By the way, that remark about Biden is an appalling lie, but you probably know that.
Zelensky quickly assures Trump that he will deliver exactly as instructed. "I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation." Trump replies, "Good. Well, thank you very much and I appreciate that. I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you." In closing, they exchange mutual invitations and make plans to get together in Poland (on a visit Trump later canceled).
Now Trump and his minions will insist that this smoking transcript includes no explicit quid pro quo, but of course, explicit isn't the style of our mobbed-up president or his role models. Instead, he speaks in an indirect but easily understood "code," as his former attorney Michael Cohen once explained.
Damning as it is, there is still more to be discovered about this fateful conversation. Is what the White House released truly an unredacted transcript, despite abrupt transitions and ellipses in the text? Were there preliminary conversations between subordinates to prepare for the call? Is that why Zelensky seems to know exactly what Trump wants before he asks? When did he learn that Trump had unilaterally withheld almost $400 million in military assistance? In all likelihood, the intelligence whistleblower knows the answer to those questions and more.
What we do know is that Trump -- evidently abetted by his consiglieres Rudy Giuliani and Bill Barr -- has perpetrated gross abuses of power. The full extent of their misconduct ultimately will be revealed because impeachment, the proper forensic remedy, is finally in the hands of the people's representatives.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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