Everyone seems to have seen the trouble except the president himself.
Even before Donald Trump’s July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, staffers were reportedly nervous that he’d derail the call with his pet conspiracy theories. Once their fears materialized, White House aides allegedly went into overdrive to suppress the call.
According to the whistle-blower report released yesterday, White House lawyers instructed that a rough transcript of the call be removed from a computer system. Instead, it was placed in a special system for particularly sensitive classified information. And the whistle-blower didn’t even get the whole story. The New York Times reports that records of the call were distributed on paper, rather than electronically, to try to control their spread. The administration then fought tooth and nail to prevent the legally required release of the whistle-blower report to Congress, an apparently unprecedented maneuver that ultimately failed.
The idea of a cover-up has come to dominate reporting on the complaint, with three of the nation’s major newspapers citing it in banner headlines today. This is in part because the incriminating details of Trump’s call with Zelensky already became public when the White House, under pressure, released a transcript of that call on Wednesday.
But it is also because the cover-up suggests a recognition of guilt. Aides who listened to or heard about the call quickly realized that it represented a gravely inappropriate abuse of his office and very possibly a crime. By all accounts, they moved quickly to try to shield him from his own errors of judgment. This was not an especially honorable, principled, or patriotic move, but it was a gesture of loyalty.
No one has accused one key person of being part of the cover-up: Trump himself. While his aides tried to hide his behavior, the president himself has been fairly forthcoming. As I wrote on Monday, even before the transcript or whistle-blower report was public, Trump had admitted to pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. (Since then, he has made the semantic argument that he was not pressuring Zelensky, without changing his story materially.) He has said he wanted Ukraine to investigate corruption, and he has insisted that what he was doing was a proper exercise of his prerogatives in setting American foreign policy. Trump ordered the release of the transcript of his call, over the apparent objections of several of his aides, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
These aides were more clear-eyed about how serious Trump’s misconduct was than the president, but their cover-up has proved disastrous. It’s like a twisted version of O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi.” The aides saw the misconduct, but not the political risk, while Trump didn’t see what he’d done wrong, but had a more acute political sense that a cover-up demonstrates awareness of guilt, even to reporters who are loath to draw conclusions about the substance of Trump’s behavior on its own.
If his aides were right on the law, Trump might have had the better argument politically. This is hardly the first time Trump has misbehaved egregiously, and while it’s simpler to understand than, say, the various strands of the Mueller report, it’s no simpler than the Access Hollywood tape or hush-money payoffs to porn actresses. The president recognizes that when he brazens out a scandal, acknowledging the basic facts but insisting he did nothing wrong and attacking his opponents, he has been able to survive.
It’s tempting to imagine a counterfactual history of this incident in which Trump talks with Zelensky and records of the call are disseminated as usual. In this scenario, someone leaks the call to the press, which asks Trump about it. He answers—as he did Monday—that of course he did it. After all, he’d made no bones about his attorney, Rudy Giuliani, going around trying to dig up dirt on the Bidens in Ukraine. Why would he deny it now? Perhaps Trump’s blunt admission of the facts combined with a denial he did nothing wrong would have defused this case, just as it had others.
Instead, administration staffers did their best to avoid such a situation, and then the White House got into a damaging tug-of-war with Congress over the whistle-blower complaint, with the administration offering an obviously untenable reading of the law to try to withhold it. Those moves made it clearer to the public and press that something was amiss, and made it harder for Republicans to defend Trump.
The allure of a cover-up almost snagged Trump once before. When Special Counsel Robert Mueller completed his investigation, he didn’t find sufficient evidence to charge Trump or his campaign of any crimes in relation to Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. But as his report made clear—even though he wouldn’t say it—he believed that Trump obstructed justice repeatedly in his attempts to kill the investigation, first by firing FBI Director James Comey and later by trying to fire Mueller as well.
Trump’s team seemed aware of the danger of appearing to try to hide his behavior back then. Even as Trump refused to sit for an interview with Mueller, refused to answer questions about obstruction, and attempted to throw logs in Mueller’s path, he and his aides insisted that he had been fully transparent and cooperated extensively with Mueller. This was not true, but it did dull the impact of Mueller’s revelations. Having survived the Mueller investigation, Trump had a new lease on life, but he went back to the same old bad behavior. In trying to protect the president from himself, his aides may instead have hobbled him.