President Donald Trump accidentally told a whole lot of the truth over the weekend about his conversation with the Ukrainian president.
“We had a great conversation,” said Trump. “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, with all of the corruption taking place and largely the fact that we don’t want our people like Vice President Biden and his son creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine and the Ukraine has got a lot of problems.”
Which is, uh, interesting. Because, well, Trump and his allies spent the days since the news of the whistleblower complaint regarding his communication with a foreign leader denying there was any “there” there, at all. And now Trump is admitting that not only did he talk to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky but that he also raised the issue of “corruption” regarding the Bidens.
(Sidebar: Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, did work for a Ukrainian gas company. A prosecutor looking into the company was removed. While Trump and his allies insist something nefarious is at play, fact-checkers have dismissed that claim.)
So here’s where the reporting and Trump’s admissions – despite his repeated invocation of “fake news” – agree.
1) Trump and the Ukrainian president did talk in late July.
2) Trump did raise the issue of corruption in Ukraine vis a vis the Bidens
And, here’s where the reporting and what Trump has admitted – at least through Monday! – disagree:
1) The Washington Post reported that the whistleblower complaint had been triggered by a “promise” by Trump. He denies there was any sort of promise or quid pro quo.
2) The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump asked Zelensky eight times on that phone call to look into the Bidens and their connections in the Ukraine. Trump hasn’t specifically denied that number but has said only that the conversation with the Ukrainian president was “perfect.”
So what is in dispute at the moment is how aggressive Trump was urging Zelensky to look into the Bidens and whether or not the American president held some sort of promise out for his Ukrainian counterpart if there was an investigation opened into Joe and Hunter Biden.
Those are substantial and important questions. But don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees here. What we know happened is this: Trump called the top elected official in Ukraine and, at the very least, mentioned the possibility of corruption tied to the man who is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination – and the man, not for nothing, that polling suggests carries a steady double-digit lead over Trump in a hypothetical 2020 general election matchup.
Um, hello? That is a HUGE deal.
And those facts aren’t up to debate. They don’t come from a “partisan” whistleblower. (Trump has used that term – just before acknowledging he didn’t even know who the whistleblower was.) They come from the president of the United States.
“It was a perfect phone call,” Trump said upon arriving at the United Nations Monday. “Everybody knows it.”
Here’s the thing: It wasn’t a perfect phone call. Raising the possibility of corruption, which, again, has no factual basis, by the Democratic presidential frontrunner is, at a minimum, hugely inappropriate behavior for an American president.
Obviously if we learn that Trump did make some sort of promise or quid pro quo with Zelensky in order to force the Ukrainian government’s hand in regard to Biden, we are in different – and more serious – territory. But even if there was no promise, it’s hard to see how Trump isn’t abusing the office in order to further his own political future. The power disparity in a conversation between the United States and Ukraine is massive. Whether Trump made an explicit scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours proposal or not, Zelensky knew – and knows – that it’s very much in his best interests to do what the president of the United States wants. And Trump, he of “Art of the Deal,” knows that very well.
Again, this is all based on what Trump – not a whistleblower, not Democrats, not the media – has told us about his conversation with Zelensky.
On Monday, Trump doubled down on the idea that there was nothing wrong with his conversation with Zelensky.
“It’s very important to talk about corruption,” Trump said. “If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?… It’s very important that on occasion you speak to somebody about corruption.”
So, yes, there are still a ton of unanswered questions here. But what we already know looks really, really bad for the President.