On Ukraine, Team Trump turned to ‘retroactive narrative construction’

In the not-too-distant past, when Donald Trump was a reality-show personality, he was supposed to oversee dramatic scenes at the end of every episode of The Apprentice. The point, as viewers know, was for him to tell one of the contestants, “You’re fired.”

In practice, however, Trump would routinely lose track of what he was supposed to say, which occasionally led him to fire the wrong people based on whims. As The New Yorker reported earlier this year, the show’s producers would then turn to the fine art of “retroactive narrative construction”: producers and editors would comb through footage, hoping to reverse engineer a story that could be presented to viewers in a way that made Trump’s misguided decision appear sensible.

Now that the reality-show personality is the leader of the free world, White House officials are doing eerily similar work.

When Trump unveiled an imagined tax plan that didn’t exist, White House officials had to scramble behind the scenes to reverse engineer a policy. When the president made up stories about human traffickers, officials got to work looking for evidence that might confirm what Trump decided was true. When Trump announced plans for a “Space Force,” his team had to figure out a way to make it seem as if there was an actual plan in place for a Space Force.

And as the Washington Post reported yesterday, retroactive narrative construction applies to the president’s Ukraine scandal, too.

A confidential White House review of President Trump’s decision to place a hold on military aid to Ukraine has turned up hundreds of documents that reveal extensive efforts to generate an after-the-fact justification for the decision and a debate over whether the delay was legal, according to three people familiar with the records.

The research by the White House Counsel’s Office, which was triggered by a congressional impeachment inquiry announced in September, includes early August email exchanges between acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and White House budget officials seeking to provide an explanation for withholding the funds after President Trump had already ordered a hold in mid-July on the nearly $400 million in security assistance, according to the three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House deliberations.

A related New York Times report added that after the White House put a hold on aid to Ukraine, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney asked budget officials “whether there was a legal justification” to do what Team Trump had already done.

We don’t know, at least not yet, what else the “research” turned up, and those waiting for the White House to disclose the findings – to anyone – shouldn’t hold their breath. The Post’s report added that the internal review turned up some “unflattering exchanges and facts,” which have the potential to “embarrass the president.”

Given the degree to which Trump has already been shamed by the ongoing scandal, the efforts at “retroactive narrative construction” must’ve been pretty bad.