About a year ago, The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer wrote, “Donald Trump can’t stop telling on himself.” This came to mind this morning when the president – on camera and on the record – used his office to encourage two foreign governments to go after one of his domestic political rivals.
It was an extraordinary moment, which increases the odds that the president will, in fact, be impeached in the not-too-distant future. But what makes Trump such a strange figure is the frequency with which he effectively confesses to wrongdoing in public.
The first hint came less than four months into his presidency, when Trump seemed to admit to NBC News’ Lester Holt that he fired former FBI Director James Comey in order to derail a federal investigation – making it seem as if the president was trying to obstruct justice.
About a year later, Trump published a tweet making the case the Justice Department shouldn’t pursue corruption charges that interfere with the Republican Party’s midterm election plans.
That came around the same time the president made incriminating comments on national television about his role in an illegal hush-money payment to a porn star with whom he allegedly had an extra-marital affair.
A few months later, Trump used Twitter to lobby a government agency to do a special favor for a coal plant owned by one of his campaign contributors.
In each of these instances, if an investigative journalist had uncovered a secret document exposing one of the president’s schemes, it would’ve been front-page news. But in many instances, Trump has done reporters’ jobs for them, confessing to wrongdoing in public with surprising regularity.
Does that make the admissions less offensive? Philip Bump raised an interesting point today:
Is it acceptable when Trump makes a similar request of China from outside the White House, as he did Thursday morning, without bothering to try to hide the directness of his request?
This, in fact, is part of his defense: How could these be questionable actions when Trump is taking them so openly, right in front of microphones? Wrongdoing is usually hidden. Isn’t the fact that Trump is making these requests publicly and releasing transcripts a sign that what he’s doing isn’t wrong?
The trouble with this as a defense is that it’s predicated on the idea that Trump is a competent criminal, effectively immunizing himself by confessing to wrongdoing he considers harmless. There’s no reason to assume that level of sophistication.
The president is an impulsive man, ignorant of the law and boundaries of propriety, who’s come to believe that he can operate above the law with impunity. Trump’s brazenness isn’t born of confidence that his actions are just; it’s driven by a wholesale indifference toward limits.
He’s a defense attorney’s worst nightmare, though the president doesn’t care about his right to remain silent because he’s convinced what he says will never be held against him in a court of law.