On late Friday morning, a reporter asked Donald Trump whether he discussed Joe Biden or his family with the president of Ukraine. “It doesn’t matter what I discuss,” the Republican replied, giving everyone a pretty strong hint about what transpired in the phone call between him and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In reality, of course, it matters very much what Trump discusses with foreign leaders. In fact, literally within minutes of the president making the comment, the Wall Street Journal published a report alleging that Trump “repeatedly pressured” Zelensky to investigate Biden’s son, urging the Ukrainian leader “about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”
Yesterday, Trump turned to a familiar page in his playbook, effectively confirming that he did, in fact, talk about Biden with the leader of Ukraine, as was alleged. As the Washington Post noted, the president acknowledged this, out loud and on the record, during a brief Q&A with reporters on the White House’s South lawn.
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was 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,” Trump told reporters Sunday morning. “And Ukraine, Ukraine’s got a lot of problems.”
Later in Houston, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying, “I don’t even want to mention it, but certainly I’d have the right to” raise Biden’s name with Zelensky….
The Republican added yesterday that there was “no quid pro quo” with the Ukrainian leader, and while it’s unclear whether or not the assertion is true, it’s not exactly the only relevant detail in the scandal. As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) put it yesterday, “The existence of an explicit quid pro quo – aid for interference – isn’t really the thing. If he demanded a foreign government do his political bidding, that’s when he crossed the critical threshold. No need to overthink this.”
It’s a compelling point. What we know at this point raises the specter of Trump urging a foreign government to look for – or by some measures, manufacture – damaging information Republicans could use to win an American election. We need to know whether there was a quid pro quo, but the absence of one wouldn’t make the scandal disappear.
But what surprised me over the weekend was Trump’s willingness to largely admit what he did.
It was hard not to feel a little pity for the White House’s allies who spent a few days running around telling anyone who’d listen that nothing happened, only to have Trump chop off the limb his supporters had climbed out upon.
And if this dynamic seems familiar, it’s because this president has a curious habit of getting caught up in scandals, only to admit more than he’s supposed to. As The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer noted in a piece late last year, “Donald Trump can’t stop telling on himself.”
In 2017, Trump admitted he fired then-FBI Director James Comey in the hopes of derailing a federal investigation. In 2018: he acknowledged that the pre-election hush money to his alleged former mistresses came directly from him. In 2019, he admitted that he talked to the Ukrainian president about a possible domestic rival.
And if we widen the aperture a bit, in 2016, Trump also made the notorious “Russia, if you’re listening…” comments.
The Washington Post had a report along these lines before Trump’s Sunday morning comments.
“What he’s been saying in public is the kind of thing I used to prosecute people for doing in private,” [Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor] said.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Trump’s confounding public behavior – for example, she said, “he says stuff in tweets that seems blatantly illegal” – allows for two competing theories.
“Are we giving him too much credit and he’s just so undisciplined that he can’t help but say and tweet these things?” she asked. “Or is he so diabolical that putting it out there is like a jujitsu move?”
Watch this space.