It’s always a challenge to understand why Donald Trump says and does things. He is a hugely impulsive figure who often acts on a whim. There is no long-term strategy that informs his daily tactical decisions – just Trump, well, doing stuff.
But even by that haphazard standard, the President’s decision this week to release a rough transcript of his July 25 conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky makes zero political sense – either in the moment he did it or in the after-action report.
The rough log of the call makes quite clear to any fair-minded person that Trump did the following things:
1) Repeatedly reminded Zelensky of how much the United States does (and can do) for Ukraine.
2) Asked Zelensky to investigate debunked allegations of corrupt activity by Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in Ukraine
3) Said he would put Attorney General William Barr and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in touch with Zelensky to follow up about the Biden probe.
That’s not an interpretation of what Trump said or a second-hand account of the call. It is an, admittedly rough, transcript released (and presumably blessed) by the White House. In which the President of the United States says things like “I will say that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time” and “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.” (There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.)
That we have the President’s actual words here – undisputed – makes this whole matter so, so much worse for Trump.
Remember that in the Mueller probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s possible role in obstructing that investigation, we never had a transcript of, say, the conversation between the President and then-FBI Director James Comey in which Comey alleges Trump asked him to drop the investigation into Michael Flynn. Or of Trump’s conversation with Corey Lewandowski, in which the President told his former campaign manager to tell Attorney General Jeff Sessions to un-recuse himself in the probe.
We also don’t have a transcript of Trump referring to Haiti and African nations as “[s-hole] countries.” Or of the full conversations between Trump and his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, as they discussed the hush money payments made to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Or lots and lots of other controversies and alleged conversations – big and small – that have sprouted up during Trump’s first three years in office.
That’s not this. In this case, we have the receipts – even if what was released by the White House was not a full transcript but rather a sort of rough memo documenting the conversation between Trump and Zelensky. It’s a primary source document that, uh, documents a clear use of pressure by Trump to get Zelensky to do what he wants.
As he often does, Trump has doubled/tripled/quadrupled down on his initial mistake.
“‘IT WAS A PERFECT CONVERSATION WITH UKRAINE PRESIDENT!’” Trump tweeted Friday morning – apparently quoting himself and in ALL CAPS, no less! Later on Friday, he added: “If that perfect phone call with the President of Ukraine Isn’t considered appropriate, then no future President can EVER again speak to another foreign leader!”
The number of tweets – and the amount of defensiveness contained therein – would suggest to even the most armchair of psychologists that the President might well be overcompensating for something he now realizes he very, very much should not have done.
As I wrote when the Ukraine call was initially released, it reads pretty close to a smoking gun that Trump used the power of his office to further his own personal, political interests. (If you are arguing that Trump didn’t say the words “quid pro quo” so, therefore, he is in the clear, well, OK.)
Whether Trump’s decision to release the transcript was driven by his blindness to how it would read or his conviction that he did everything absolutely perfectly – or both – is sort of beside the point now. The genie is out of the bottle. And that reality is incredibly perilous for the President.