Fact check: Trump, telling a completely fictional story, falsely claims he released ‘the tape’ of his Zelensky call


Former President Donald Trump told an entirely fictional story on Saturday about how he had supposedly outwitted his Democratic opponents by releasing “the tape” of the 2019 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that was a key factor in Trump’s first impeachment.

Speaking at a Saturday campaign rally in Ohio, Trump claimed he let Democrats make “wilder and wilder” claims about what he said to Zelensky, “and then we released the tape.” Trump proceeded to claim that when Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, who was then the speaker of the House, “heard” this tape, she was angry that she had been deceived by her allies’ previous “false” descriptions of the call; he claimed that Pelosi said to “her people”: “What the hell did you get me into? You hear this call? He didn’t do any of this stuff!”

Trump claimed that Pelosi was told, “Let’s just pretend he did and keep going forward.” He continued, “After they made up the story and then after that they heard the tape, they died. They didn’t know that phone call was taped. That was one good case of a phone call being taped. And they were taped and they got caught.”

Facts First: Trump’s story is a complete fabrication. No tape of his call with Zelensky was ever released; Pelosi could not possibly have been angry with her allies after hearing a tape of the call because she has never heard a tape of the call. In fact, as of nearly five years after the July 2019 call, there is no known US recording of the conversation. What Trump’s White House actually released in September 2019 was a rough written transcript of the call — which corroborated, rather than contradicted, a government whistleblower’s central allegations about what Trump had said. Pelosi spokesperson Aaron Bennett said Sunday that Trump’s story is “fact-free nonsense.”

Presidential phone calls with foreign leaders are not typically recorded by the American side. Instead, they are inexactly memorialized in written form by a combination of software and US officials who listen in.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was one of the officials listening to Trump’s call with Zelensky in his role at the time as the top Ukraine expert for the White House’s National Security Council (and who later became an important witness in the impeachment inquiry), told CNN in a text message on Sunday that there is “no recording” of the call.

“He’s lying,” Vindman said.

Trump’s new story echoes his false claims from his presidency

Trump has been trying since late 2019 to rewrite reality about the phone call with Zelensky — in which, after Zelensky spoke of Ukraine wanting to buy weapons from the US, Trump pushed him to investigate Joe Biden, who was then Trump’s looming Democratic opponent in the 2020 presidential election, as well as probe a baseless conspiracy theory about supposed Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election (in which Russia interfered). The false story Trump delivered at his Saturday rally was a more dramatic version of false stories he told more than four years ago, which CNN fact-checked at the time.

In the previous stories, Trump claimed that he had triumphed over a prominent figure in the impeachment effort, Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, by releasing the rough transcript of the call with Zelensky after Schiff had misleadingly paraphrased what Trump had said. He claimed that Schiff never would have made his comments if he had known Trump would release the rough transcript.

But that Trump claim never made any sense, either — because, in reality, he released the rough transcript before Schiff gave his exaggerated rendition of it at a congressional hearing.

In Trump’s 2019 versions of the story, he claimed that Pelosi had been dismayed with her allies after she read the rough transcript, not after she listened to “the tape.” But there was no basis even for that claim; after the rough transcript was released, Pelosi issued a scathing statement accusing Trump of “lawlessness” and attempting “to shake down other countries for the benefit of his campaign.” A Pelosi spokesperson told CNN in 2019 that Trump’s account of her supposed thoughts was “complete fiction.”

Trump made numerous additional false claims at the Saturday rally in Ohio. He told the “tape” version of the story while again bashing Schiff, who is now running for a US Senate seat in California.

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