The heavy-handed and characteristic blend of implied pressure and hinted-at quid pro quos that Trump deployed in the conversation – that he first perfected as a real estate shark and then took to the White House – now threatens to work against him.
On stage at a New York news conference Wednesday, Trump, offered moral support by his Cabinet lieutenants Mike Pompeo and Steven Mnuchin, seemed embittered, lonely and a little confused.
The behavior that he has always trusted to help him come out on top, with its obfuscation, bullying, fact-bending and conspiracy spinning tangents, suddenly didn’t seem to be working. It was the same story for Rudy Giuliani, whose unchained appearances on television that Trump so prizes seemed to dig the President in deeper.
And in the latest blockbuster revelation, a whistleblower complaint on Trump and Ukraine released Thursday morning accused the President of using his power “to solicit interference from a foreign country” in the 2020 election.
White House officials, the whistleblower said, were “deeply disturbed” by Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The officials attempted to “lock down” all records of the phone call, especially the word-for-word transcript of the call that was produced by the White House, the complaint states.
There has long been a gap between Trump’s conduct and the conventions of the office of the presidency. His success with his supporters has often rested in his willingness to so publicly flout such standards. But now it appears, that his unorthodox methods may have caught up with him.
Many observers, like fired former FBI Director James Comey, have noted that Trump’s way of doing business and demands for loyalty have similarities with the loaded language of a mafia don.
The President’s jailed former lawyer Michael Cohen was familiar with the approach Trump exhibited in his dealings with Ukraine.
“He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code. And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade,” Cohen said in congressional testimony in February.
But finally Trump, an expert on creating his own reality, may have been undone by facts on a page that he released himself, handing Democrats a clear, apparently prosecutable case, that suggests abuse of power with the transcript of the call with Zelensky.
Trump is in new territory now.
Building blocks of impeachment
Wednesday was another tempestuous day in Washington, where an impeachment drive picked up stunning speed, and in the city where Trump made his legend and desperately fought to save it.
It started with growing suspicions that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi got too far over her skis by launching impeachment hearings on Tuesday before seeing the call transcript or details of a whistleblower complaint on the same issue against Trump.
But it ended with Democrats increasingly convinced they had the building blocks of a case against the President – one that will pitch the nation into a long, dark political tunnel.
Looking back, it now seems impossible that the President thought releasing the transcript would get him out of his jam.
While it did not contain the direct quid pro quo of a threat to halt military aid unless Zelensky launched a probe against Joe Biden, it came perilously close to one.
The distasteful spectacle of a President of a democratic superpower leaning on the rookie leader of a vulnerable post-Soviet state leaped off the page.
Trump had long been scheduled to meet Zelensky on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. In the light of events, their photo-op took on a surreal turn.
Zelensky made sure to supply the soundbite that Trump had hoped for.
“There was no pressure,” he said, before the US leader quickly jumped in to make sure no one missed the moment.
“You know there was no pressure,” he said, turning to reporters. “I appreciate the answer.”
In a news conference punctuated by angry swipes at reporters later on, the President didn’t have a very organized defense, suggesting that his underpowered White House may struggle to prepare him for the grueling impeachment saga to come.
He claimed that his request for Zelensky to investigate Biden – that appears to signal an abuse of power – was no different than previous US pressure on Ukraine.
Yet warnings that aid would be withheld if Kiev failed to improve its governance and fight corruption — made by several US senators and former Vice President Joe Biden – are hardly in the same league as making a similar threat in the hope of getting dirt on a political foe.
Trump also tried to argue that he’d been courteous with Zelensky – and the transcript did show the avuncular nature that the President sometimes adopts.
At another point, he offered testimony from an ally.
“You folks were saying such lies. Such horrible things about a call that was so innocent and so nice,” Trump told reporters. “In fact, (South Carolina Republican Sen.) Lindsey Graham said to me when he read it … he said ‘I can’t believe it. I never knew you could be so nice.’”
“I was nice. I’m nice to a lot of people. People don’t understand that. But I was,” Trump said, for once sounding vulnerable and upset that he’s been misunderstood.
He went on a Twitter offensive Thursday morning, painting himself as a victim and sharing op-eds and views of conservative allies rushing to his defense.
“THE GREATEST SCAM IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN POLITICS!” he tweeted at one point.
But the call transcript showed that Trump repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.
Trump also asked the Ukrainian leader to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and US Attorney General William Barr on the issue, the call transcript reveals.
Initially the impact of the call was to expose the normal partisan fault lines. Democrats declared it a smoking gun and Republicans accused Pelosi of moving without evidence. It was a classic Trump era scenario wherein a person’s eyes told them the story their political standpoint required.
Yet there was just enough concern and uncertainty on Capitol Hill – especially after the arrival of a classified version of the whistleblower report – to suggest that this is one scrape from which Trump won’t skip free by sparking a new controversy to hijack the news cycle.
“There’s obviously some very troubling things here,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse told reporters on Wednesday night, calling for the kind of sober deliberation that a Congress torn by the nation’s political divides rarely exhibits.
“Republicans ought not just circle the wagons and Democrats ought not be using words like ‘impeach’ before they knew anything about the actual substance,” he said.
Democrats have now gone so far down the road of impeachment that it seems unlikely they will be able to turn back.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said that the public evidence so far is “as damning as you can imagine.”
Trump’s rock solid support among Republicans means that even if some GOP senators waver, the two-third majority needed to convict a President impeached by the House will be elusive.
Yet the President’s demeanor – so different than his usual relentless combative public image – was enough for pundits, some of whom suggest he has all along wanted to be impeached.
Trump will surely come out fighting and he will never give up. But Wednesday’s events left a strong impression that he neither wants the agony that is to come nor is fully prepared for it.