COMMENT:

Donald Trump's phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky happened the day after special counsel Robert Mueller, the man who led the Russia investigation, testified to Congress.

Mueller's testimony had been an anticlimax. Trump was finally free of the accusation that had plagued and enraged him for years — the idea, ultimately unsubstantiated, that he would collude with a foreign country to influence an American election, reports News.com.au.

So what did he do next? He picked up the phone, and proceeded to pressure a foreign country to interfere in an American election by digging up dirt on his political opponent.

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Trump and his supporters are claiming a summary of the call, released overnight, vindicates the President's claim that he did nothing wrong. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, for example, has labelled it a "nothingburger".

It is, in fact, a very large and juicy burger — a Whopper of a political scandal. Now we need to digest it.

Let's run through the transcript. I'm going to quote significant chunks of it, because I want you to see the full context of Trump's comments.

The phone call started with Trump congratulating Zelensky on his party's success in Ukraine's parliamentary elections. Zelensky responded by flattering Trump, saying he had drawn inspiration from the US President's triumph in 2016.

Donald Trump is in trouble. Photo / AP
Donald Trump is in trouble. Photo / AP

That is all perfectly normal. The niceties must be observed.

As the conversation moved to more substantial matters, Trump highlighted the United States' significant efforts to aid Ukraine, and accused it of not doing enough to reciprocate.

Trump: "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. Germany does almost nothing for you. All they do is talk and I think it's something that you should really ask them about. When I was speaking to Angela Merkel, she talks about Ukraine, but she doesn't do anything. A lot of the European countries are the same way, so 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."

Trump's meaning is plain here. He wants something in return for all the aid he's giving Ukraine. Nothing wrong with that — "I scratch your back, you scratch mine" is a fundamental principle of diplomacy.

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The problem comes later, when we find out exactly what Mr Trump is after.

Moving on. Zelensky told Trump he was "absolutely right", and the European Union did need to do more to enforce sanctions against Russia. He then said Ukraine wanted to buy more Javelin missiles from the United States.

The Javelin is an antitank weapon, and a crucial ingredient in evening out the power imbalance between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries.

In response, Trump said he wanted Ukraine to do the United States a "favour".

Zelensky: "I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defence. We are ready to continue to co-operate for the next steps. Specifically, we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defence purposes."

Trump: "I would like you to do us a favour 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 … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … the server, they say Ukraine has it. There are a lot of things that went on, the whole situation. I think you're surrounding yourself with some of the same people. I would like to have the Attorney-General (William Barr) call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it. As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it if that's possible."

It's going to take me a few paragraphs to explain what the heck Trump is talking about here, so settle in.

CrowdStrike is a cybersecurity firm that investigated the hack of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016. America's intelligence agencies eventually concluded Russia was behind that hack.

Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on their conclusion.

Over the past couple of years, he has pushed a conspiracy theory that during its investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to seize a DNC server containing important information about the hack.

There is no such server. It is a figment of the President's imagination.

Trump is also under the mistaken impression that CrowdStrike is a Ukrainian company — he once claimed it was owned by "a very rich Ukrainian" — when it is actually an American company based in Sunnyvale, California.

So, in the quote above he is asking Zelensky to launch an official investigation into a mad conspiracy theory.

Zelensky was nevertheless receptive to Trump's request, and said Ukraine was "open for any future co-operation". He mentioned his staff had already interacted with Trump's personal lawyer and adviser, Rudy Giuliani.

Zelensky: "I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine, and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine. I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people. I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you, Mr President, have friends in our country, so we can continue our strategic partnership. I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the President of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly. That I can assure you."

Trump: "Good, because I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down, and that's really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down and you had some very bad people involved. Mr Giuliani is a highly respected man. He was the mayor of New York, a great mayor, and I would like him to call you. I will ask him to call you, along with the Attorney-General. Rudy very much knows what is happening and he is a very capable guy. If you could speak to him that would be great."

Giuliani's involvement is significant.

Hunter and Joe Biden. Photo / Getty Images
Hunter and Joe Biden. Photo / Getty Images

Why? Because he has spent the past year trying to dig up damaging information about the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, former vice president Joe Biden.

As part of that effort, we know he has pressed Ukrainian officials to investigate unfounded allegations of corruption against Biden and his son Hunter, who used to serve on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma.

Trump and Giuliani believe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire its prosecutor-general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016 because Shokin was investigating Burisma.

There is no evidence to support that allegation.

Biden did pressure Ukraine to get rid of Shokin, but he did so at the direction of President Barack Obama, and with the support of other European nations, who believed the prosecutor-general was doing too little to combat corruption.

And by the time Shokin was dismissed in March of 2016, the investigation of Burisma had already been discontinued.

So, to sum up, Trump thinks Shokin was a "very good" prosecutor who was fired for investigating Joe Biden's son, when he was actually ditched because of an international consensus that he was bad at his job and had failed to crack down on corruption.

Back to the transcript.

Trump: "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."

This is the killer line. It shows Trump explicitly asking the leader of a foreign country to investigate one of his political opponents. That conclusion is not open to interpretation — it's in Trump's own words.

Zelensky assured him Ukraine's next prosecutor-general would be "100 per cent my person, my candidate".

Zelensky: "He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue. The issue of the investigation of the case."

Before the conversation ended, Trump again confirmed he would put Zelensky in touch with both his personal lawyer, Giuliani, and the head of the US Justice Department, Barr.

Trump: "I will have Mr Giuliani give you a call, and I am also going to have Attorney-General Barr call, and we will get to the bottom of it. I'm sure you will figure it out. I heard the prosecutor was treated very badly and he was a very fair prosecutor, so good luck with everything."

This transcript is not the whole story. We also know a member of the intelligence community lodged a whistleblower complaint about Trump's interactions with Ukraine — including, but not limited to, his phone call with Zelensky.

That whistleblower complaint has been released to Congress, and will presumably make its way into the public sphere at some point.

But you don't need any more information to conclude Mr Trump acted improperly.

"I think it is important to understand what we don't have, and what we don't have is a quid pro quo. In other words, 'I will do this, you do this.' That is absent," Jay Sekulow, a lawyer representing Trump, told CNN.

That is the White House's only defence — that there was no explicit quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky.

It doesn't matter. The President's conduct was completely unacceptable regardless.

The transcript proves, obviously and unambiguously, that Trump abused his power by pressuring a foreign government to go after one of his political opponents.

This after years of scoffing at the idea that he would collude with a foreign country to influence an American election.

It also strongly implies that request was linked to military aid Ukraine desperately needed — aid Trump was withholding at the time.

Zelensky said he wanted military help. Trump's immediate reply was to ask for a "favour". That favour was for Zelensky to investigate Trump's pet conspiracy theory and his most prominent political rival. Connect the dots.

The Democrats' push to impeach Trump and remove him from office will almost certainly fail, because they ultimately need the support of 20 Republican senators. Graham's "nothingburger" comment should tell you exactly how long the odds are on that.

But that political reality does not absolve the President of his conduct.

Whatever the impeachment inquiry uncovers, we already have convincing proof that Trump is guilty of a monstrous abuse of his office.

- Sam Clench writes about Australian and US politics for news.com.au