Donald Trump considers the notes from his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be exculpatory—and that fact is terribly damning. He has no self-awareness of his own abusiveness, perhaps because that abusiveness is so central to his character. His conversation with the Ukrainian president is a perfect example of how a bully operates, how he bears down on his target’s weaknesses and doesn’t relent.
One might argue that the notes from the conversation reveal Zelensky to be a lickspittle, that he sacrifices his dignity and that of his nation. But his obsequiousness is obviously strategic. Extreme unctuousness is apparently considered the most effective means of handling the president of the United States. If we had the transcripts of Trump’s calls with leaders of states that don’t possess nuclear weapons, with the possible exception of Angela Merkel, they would likely also include mentions of visits to Trump-branded properties and note how leaders have studied his political genius in search of helpful tips.
Zelensky prostrates himself before Trump because he has no other choice. Ukraine is a country that has been invaded by a more powerful neighbor. Russian President Vladimir Putin never dispensed with the notion that large swaths of Ukraine are an annex of the motherland, a limb that he regrets having amputated. In the face of Russian aggression—not to mention the hundreds of millions of dollars that Russia spends on influencing Ukrainian politics—Ukraine must cultivate a relationship with the United States, and therefore with the president of the United States.