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.
When Trump first ran for president, many Ukrainians began to panic about how he might sell out their country. This was a rational fear, given how little alarm Trump displayed over the invasion of Crimea. They were especially terrified after the Republican Party softened its official platform plank that had urged military support for Ukraine. Trump’s against-the-odds victory required that the Ukrainian government rush to embrace the new president, to deflect accusations that it had somehow conspired to bolster Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Sucking up to Trump became a highest matter of the national interest.
This weakness and dependency are exactly the things that the bully hopes to exploit. The telling moment in the Zelensky call is when the Ukrainian president attempts to steer the conversation to military aid: “I would like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense.” Then he announces that he is ready to buy some more missiles. He’s hoping to secure the protection of the United States, and that moment of vulnerability is when Trump attempts to strong-arm him: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” What’s perverse is that Trump flips the conversation so that he becomes the cosmic victim and Ukraine becomes the culprit in his suffering.
As Trump pushes him to talk with his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the attorney general, William Barr, Zelensky seemingly tries to change the subject (“I would like to tell you that I also have quite a few Ukrainian friends that live in the United States”). His efforts are actually rather deft. He appears to agree with Trump, while making no firm commitments. Yet Trump refuses to be deflected by his vacuous digressions. He is relentless. On three occasions, he pushes Zelensky to call Barr. This too is a classic bully move. He won’t let his victim squirm away. Even if the extortive request is indirect, the repetition makes the demand unmistakable.
The formal impeachment proceedings that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi initiated have a proximate trigger in the Ukrainian scandal, but they are clearly intended as a broader judgment on a corrupt presidency. This phone call is a microcosm of a presidency that fails to distinguish the interests of the state from the interests of the head of state. It is entirely fitting that the House will stamp his presidency with the seal of impeachment for having been a bully.