To hear Donald Trump tell it, he has no idea why the Ukraine scandal is even a scandal. All he did was a have a “perfect” telephone chat with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, which no reasonable person could’ve found objectionable.
In fact, as far as the American president is concerned, all kinds of people heard what he said during that conversation and were wholly unconcerned. A “casual reading of the Transcript leads EVERYBODY to see that the call with the Ukrainian President was a totally appropriate one,” Trump wrote on Twitter this morning. He added soon after, “There were many people listening to the call. How come they … found NOTHING wrong with it.”
In reality, officials found plenty wrong with it. Trump may have ended his subscription to the New York Times, but the newspaper ran this report over a month ago.
No one bothered to put special limits on the number of people allowed to sit in the “listening room” in the White House to monitor the phone call because it was expected to be routine. By the time the call was over 30 minutes later, it quickly became clear that it was anything but.
Soon after President Trump put the phone down that summer day, the red flags began to go up. Rather than just one head of state offering another pro forma congratulations for recent elections, the call turned into a bid by Mr. Trump to press a Ukrainian leader in need of additional American aid to “do us a favor” and investigate Democrats.
The alarm among officials who heard the exchange led to an extraordinary effort to keep too many more people from learning about it.
This week, we learned Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council, also had concerns about Trump’s comments, to the point that he followed the chain of command and reported the matter to his superior.
The president this morning dismissed Vindman – currently a prominent member of the White House’s national security team – as a “Never Trumper witness.”
What should concern the president’s allies is not just Trump’s role in an illegal scheme that’s likely to lead to his impeachment, but also his inability to stop lying in ways that are easily discredited. The president and his team have had several weeks to come up with compelling defenses and persuasive talking points, and it should tell the political world something that Trump World isn’t having much luck.
As of this morning, the president is pointing to a transcript that isn’t a transcript, while simultaneously arguing that alarmed White House officials weren’t actually alarmed.
To be sure, the July 25 phone call is just part of an increasingly scandalous mosaic, involving months of scheming and a wide variety of players. Trump seems to believe, however, that if he can derail the controversy surrounding his Zelensky conversation, the entire scandal will collapse.
He’s wrong, and just as importantly, he’s failing.