If President Donald Trump hoped the release of a memo detailing his July 25 telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was going to exculpate him from questions about misconduct in office, his hopes were dashed the moment the public read the transcript.
Suspicions of Trump trading £323m ($400m) in military aid to Ukraine in return for Zelensky launching a corruption investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden have coloured this entire affair. If a quid pro-quo was offered, it would be a severe violation of the American people’s trust and a gross misuse of the president’s powers. That no such quid pro-quo was made explicit in the transcript gave Trump’s defenders on Capitol Hill and cable TV a defence to run with as the days go by, however weak.
And the conversation was also a goldmine for Democrats. Surely, they will ask, it wasn’t a coincidence that Trump pivoted immediately to asking for a “favour” after reminding Zelensky about how great Washington has been to the Ukrainians. For Democrats, the transcript will be Exhibit A in their impeachment case against the president.
Democratic lawmakers issued a blurry of statements, an exercise that was as much about blowing off steam as it was about building a public narrative around Trump’s dismissal. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who approved a formal impeachment inquiry after resisting it throughout the year, said
“The president has tried to make lawlessness a virtue in America and now is exporting it abroad.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former federal prosecutor, held a news conference and blasted Trump as a “mafia boss” in the Oval Office. “There was only [one] message that that president of Ukraine got from that call, and that was: ‘This is what I need, I know what you need,” the veteran lawmaker concluded.
At best, Trump was seeking to enlist the Ukrainian government as part of his re-election campaign. At worst, he was abusing the power of the presidency and conditioning congressionally-appropriated funds on receiving political dirt against a top 2010 Democratic presidential candidate.
One can only imagine lawyers and aides in the White House are scrambling in the hallways like headless chickens. All of them, of course, are used to controversy and have weathered many over the past two and a half years. The Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, Charlottesville, Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen, staff infighting, the Muslim ban, kids in cages along the southern border. Trump has survived all of it with near-full Republican support. Trump is confident he will survive UkraineGate as well; he even predicted the Democrats’ impeachment campaign will help him at the polls.
The White House is banking on the Democrats overreaching like the Republicans during their impeachment crusade against Bill Clinton 20 years ago. The fear of overreach and concerns about how it would play with the broader American electorate as election season begins is why Pelosi was so reluctant to endorse an impeachment inquiry from the start.
For the president, the strategy is different. While his advisers are battening down the hatches waiting for the storm to pass, Trump is standing on the deck and taking it all in. His post-U.N. General Assembly press conference in New York was a combination of defensiveness about his conduct, complaints about the press, and diversion to unfounded allegations against Biden and Democrats. The real culprit in Trump’s eyes are the Democrats who sell out the country for their narrow partisan purposes.
We will hear more and more of this in the weeks go by. The president is confident of his political support and his firewall in the Republican-led Senate. But the more information comes out, the more desperate he looks.
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