In an interview with the Washington Examiner on Thursday, Donald Trump floated a new idea.
“This is over a phone call that is a good call,” Trump said, referring to his July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “At some point, I’m going to sit down, perhaps as a fireside chat on live television, and I will read the transcript of the call, because people have to hear it. When you read it, it’s a straight call.” Trump has also tweeted several times recently exhorting his followers to read the document.
It’s a bizarre notion. The partial transcript is deeply incriminating, capturing the president pressuring Zelensky to investigate a political rival and to intervene in American elections as part of a quid pro quo. It also shows Trump espousing a bogus conspiracy theory that he appears to have concocted from bits of internet detritus haphazardly glued together—hardly a flattering look. The document is no longer the only evidence against Trump, but it is a central piece and sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Typically, accused criminals don’t plead for jurors to look at incriminating evidence. It is as though Richard Nixon had staged a listening party for the “smoking gun” tape (If the tape squarely implicates me, that’s because I like it square), or as though Bill Clinton had decided to put that honeyed drawl to work with a dramatic reading of the Starr Report.
Yet there is a counterintuitive logic to Trump’s line of attack. The evidence in the impeachment inquiry is, though easier to parse than Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, still somewhat confusing, and its reception has become heavily polarized. One easily legible sign that Trump did something wrong is that his administration rushed to cover up the July 25 call after it happened. Republicans have a choice ahead of them: Support impeachment, which seems unlikely; admit that Trump did something wrong, but say that it isn’t worthy of impeachment; or deny that Trump did anything wrong. By inviting the nation to read the transcript, the president seems to be signaling that he has nothing to be ashamed of, and trying to push Republicans toward door No. 3.
Whether Trump actually believes that the call was “perfect” and that he did nothing wrong is unclear. He has shown a tendency to conflate himself and the government, justifying abuses of power, precedent, and propriety. It’s possible that Trump believed it was fine to use the government’s power to aid his own reelection effort, though he ought to have known better. Then again, Trump is a chronic dissembler who insisted, falsely and against the transcript’s own markings, that it was an exact record of the call, rather than a partial and reconstructed one, so he has no qualms lying about the call.
Either way, many of Trump’s aides did not think that the call was nearly so acceptable. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who testified this week, was rattled and feared that the call endangered American national security. Others who heard the call were also distressed, and took their concerns to an anonymous whistle-blower. But not everyone approached the problem the same way. John Eisenberg, a White House national-security lawyer, reportedly decided to move the partial transcript to a secure server so as to restrict access to it—a sign of how explosive some Trump aides realized the call could be. He also reportedly instructed Vindman not to speak about the call.
The cover-up is an easy rejoinder to the claim that the call was “perfect.” Therefore, by insisting that he has nothing to hide, Trump’s insistence that people read the transcript of the call seems to aim to erase the implied admission of guilt—even if the claims of transparency are at odds with the president’s promise, in the same Examiner interview, to continue obstructing the impeachment inquiry.
Trump’s best hope is probably that people take him at his word and don’t actually read the document. The “read the transcript” gambit is essentially optics, not a substantive defense. The substance is as damning as it was when the White House released the transcript on September 25. Meanwhile, the House investigation has produced a steady stream of additional, separate evidence about the sprawling scope and breadth of Trump’s effort to extract electoral interference from Ukraine, using whatever leverage—White House meetings, military aid—available. Impeachment in the House is now effectively inevitable, but Trump’s task is to hold the line in the Senate. In the absence of a compelling, substantive defense, asking people to look at the transcript might allow the president to muddy the waters a bit.