As scandal intensifies, Trump resorts to shell game with transcripts

Over the weekend, Donald Trump spoke with reporters for a few minutes on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews, and he brought up a phone meeting he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in April – three months before the Republican’s controversial “I would like you to do us a favor, though” conversation. The president told reporters:

“Now, they want to have a transcript of the other call, the second call. And I’m willing to provide that. We’ll probably give it to you on Tuesday. Monday being a holiday, we’ll probably give it to you on Tuesday. But we have another transcript coming out, which is very important. They asked for it, and I gladly give it. […]

“You’ll see the call. Now I’ll give you a second transcript, because I actually had two calls with the President of Ukraine. So you’ll read the second call and you’ll tell me if you think there’s anything wrong with it.”

Trump echoed the message last night on Twitter, writing, “In order to continue being the most Transparent President in history, I will be releasing sometime this week the Transcript of the first, and therefore most important, phone call I had with the President of Ukraine. I am sure you will find it tantalizing!”

He added this morning, “I will be releasing the transcript of the first, and therefore more important, phone call with the Ukrainian President before week’s end!”

Let’s take a minute to unpack this, because it’s more amusing than Trump seems to realize.

I can appreciate why the president is so excited about this other “transcript” – which is more likely another call summary, rather than a word-for-word record – because it’s likely to be quite innocuous. We know this in large part because Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman has already testified that the April phone meeting, unlike the one in July, was fine. In fact, Vindman seemed relieved that Trump hadn’t screwed it up.

But there’s nothing exculpatory about this. Imagine a bank robber who gets caught breaking into a vault, who later tells the police, “But what about the time I went to the bank a few months earlier and didn’t steal anything? Isn’t that important, too?”

The answer is no, actually, it isn’t. (As regular readers know, this is a rhetorical framework with a rich recent history.)

Similarly, note that Trump has now argued more than once that the April phone meeting with Zelensky was “more important” than the July call because the April meeting came first. This isn’t how reality works: the significance of what transpires at meetings are not weighed by calendars. Rather, their importance is driven by what happens during the conversations themselves.

Finally, let’s not brush past Trump’s insistence about being the most transparent president in history. It’s a curious claim for a man who’s hired a team of lawyers to focus exclusively on keeping his tax returns hidden, who keeps White House visitor logs secret, and who’s shielded all kinds of personal records (college transcripts, draft-board records, etc.) from public scrutiny.

But if the president is serious about pretending to be transparent, maybe he can start cooperating with the impeachment inquiry?