David A. Graham: Trump admits everything
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.