Trump, the phone call and con­cious­ness of guilt

The Saline Courier - - OPINION -

The July 25 call be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Vlodomyr Ze­len­sky is the cen­tral piece of ev­i­dence in the Demo­cratic drive to re­move the pres­i­dent from office. “That call was a smok­ing gun,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said af­ter House Democrats voted to for­mal­ize their im­peach­ment in­quiry.

Trump has re­peat­edly said the call was “per­fect,” or, as he de­scribed it re­cently, “per­fecto.” His de­fend­ers, or most of them, have de­clined to adopt that char­ac­ter­i­za­tion. But im­por­tantly, the pres­i­dent, and others as well, have also pointed to the cir­cum­stances of the Trump-ze­len­sky con­ver­sa­tion as ev­i­dence that Trump had no in­tent to com­mit any sort of of­fense, and cer­tainly not one that the House would later deem im­peach­able.

“It’s com­mon sense,” the pres­i­dent said re­cently in an ex­pan­sive Oval Office con­ver­sa­tion af­ter the House vote. “I’ve got 20 to 25 peo­ple on the phone call. I’ve got stenog­ra­phers and all of th­ese peo­ple on the tele­phone. Am I go­ing to make a state­ment that’s il­le­gal or bad? I’m an in­tel­li­gent per­son. Who would do a thing like that?”

To that end, Trump has urged ev­ery­one to “read the tran­script” of the call. That is a ref­er­ence to the mem­o­ran­dum, which reads like a rough tran­script, pre­pared by the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. On the morn­ing of the House vote, Trump tweeted, sim­ply, “READ THE TRAN­SCRIPT!” In his Oval Office con­ver­sa­tion, he said his cam­paign has had T-shirts made with the same mes­sage.

Then, Trump said: “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.”

And, of course, the only rea­son ev­ery­one knows what is in the rough tran­script is that, once it be­came the cen­ter of con­tro­versy, Trump re­leased it to the pub­lic. He did so over the ob­jec­tions of some of­fi­cials who ar­gued dis­clo­sure would be an un­prece­dented breach of the con­fi­den­tial­ity of the pres­i­dent’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions with other heads of state.

In short, Trump ap­pears to be mak­ing no ef­fort to con­ceal what he said to Ze­len­sky, be it about his be­lief that other coun­tries should bear more of the bur­den of for­eign aid or what he wanted Ukraine to in­ves­ti­gate about the 2016 elec­tion and about former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and son Hunter Bi­den.

So what to make of a sit­u­a­tion in which one side says the call is a smok­ing gun, while the other screams, “READ THE TRAN­SCRIPT”?

“Look at the cir­cum­stan­tial ev­i­dence sur­round­ing this,” former in­de­pen­dent coun­sel Ken­neth Starr said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

“[Did Trump say] ‘Bring him in, bring him in here, and I want to talk to him pri­vately’?”

No. In­stead, Starr ex­plained, Trump chose a phone call, rather than a one-on-one meet­ing, to make his points with Ze­len­sky. Re­mem­ber when the pres­i­dent was ac­cused of be­ing se­cre­tive in a one-on-one con­ver­sa­tion with Vladimir Putin with no one other than trans­la­tors within earshot? This wasn’t that.

“There were 17 peo­ple on the phone, in­clud­ing the sec­re­tary of State,” Starr con­tin­ued. “The pres­i­dent was so, shall I say, open and trans­par­ent about it that that goes to his in­tent. There’s no cor­rupt bar­gain, or an at­tempt to achieve a cor­rupt bar­gain, as I see it.”

No, no, no, say Democrats. Trump’s be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris, showed “clear ev­i­dence of con­scious­ness of guilt.” The call is not a “straight call,” as the pres­i­dent said. It’s a con­fes­sion of a crime.

Part of the prob­lem with that po­si­tion is that Democrats have had a dif­fi­cult time com­ing up with a law that Trump vi­o­lated in the Ze­len­sky call. Some have said it was ex­tor­tion. Some have said it was a cam­paign fi­nance vi­o­la­tion. Some re­cent spec­u­la­tion has fo­cused on an ob­scure statute called the Hobbs Act. But no­body has made a slam­dunk case that Trump broke the law.

Still, Democrats say, the White House move to re­strict ac­cess to the rough tran­script shows an aware­ness that some­thing was amiss. “Peo­ple in­volved in the prepa­ra­tion of this tran­script had, in ef­fect, a con­scious­ness of guilt,” CNN’S Jef­frey Toobin said re­cently. The prob­lem with that ar­gu­ment, in the con­text of im­peach­ment, is that it refers to White House staff, not to the pres­i­dent him­self.

Some of Trump’s most de­ter­mined ad­ver­saries say his “read the tran­script” mantra is the work of a so­ciopath, of some­one who is in­ca­pable of know­ing right from wrong, or per­haps it is an in-your-face de­fense strat­egy that comes nat­u­rally to a man who al­most never ad­mits a mis­take.

But the sim­plest ex­pla­na­tion is that Trump re­ally doesn’t be­lieve he did any­thing wrong.

“Ev­ery­body knows I did ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong,” the pres­i­dent said in the Oval Office be­fore tick­ing down im­peach­ments past. “Bill Clin­ton did things wrong. Richard Nixon did things wrong ... I did noth­ing wrong, and for [Democrats] to do this is a dis­grace.”


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