WASHINGTON — As news that he asked a foreign leader to investigate his political rivals rocked Washington, President Trump turned to a tried-and-true strategy: Embrace it.
Trump took the unusual step of releasing a rough transcript Wednesday of his July conversation with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, claiming that the summary would prove that his call was “absolutely perfect” and exonerate him.
The summary of the call showed that Trump reminded Zelensky of the United States’ support for his country and asked him to “look into” unproven allegations about the Biden family’s activities in Ukraine — a breathtaking admission that poured new fuel on the House’s impeachment inquiry.
But in the coming battle to persuade a majority of Americans to back their impeachment inquiry, Democrats face a major hurdle: Trump’s own ability to puncture scandals by eventually admitting to much of what he has been accused of, aggressively defending his behavior, and saying it falls short of a higher bar for misconduct.
The tactic has gotten him through the firing of former FBI director James Comey for not halting the investigation into his campaign, hush payments to adult film star Stormy Daniels, the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape just weeks before the election, and myriad revelations that would have sunk other politicians.
“He goes into the storm again in the same way every time,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee. “There is absolute denial and then it’s completely true — and it doesn’t matter.”
But with an impeachment inquiry looming and a reelection battle just around the corner, Trump’s strategy of defiantly leaning into his norm-breaking behavior is about to face its biggest test.
“I think this time it’s different,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat. “This is the president, in his own words, admitting that he colluded with a foreign government to influence the 2020 elections.”
Democrats expressed shock that the White House would release the call summary, which showed Trump pressing Zelensky to talk to US Attorney General William Barr and his own personal attorney Rudy Giuliani about investigating Biden and his son and the origins of the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Senator Elizabeth Warren called the summary a “smoking gun,” while Representative Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said the call alone was “very powerful evidence.” Schiff added that the “cascade of admissions” by the president had sped up the House’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry.
But Trump and his allies insisted the call notes showed there was no “quid pro quo” agreement to trade military aid for dirt on Biden, which is similar to how the president bragged that the Mueller report showed “no collusion” and skated over the evidence that he had tried to interfere with that investigation.
“I’ve done nothing wrong,” Trump wrote in a fund-raising e-mail sent to supporters on Wednesday. “Trust me, you saw the transcript.”
The president said Wednesday afternoon that he’d be happy to release more notes from other calls with Zelensky, mentioning the word “transparency” at least three times in a press conference. “I think you should ask for the first conversation also,” Trump said, helpfully. “You can have it any time you need it.”
In a further attempt to purge the scandal through a show of transparency, Trump staged a joint press conference in New York where a visibly uncomfortable Zelensky hesitated when asked by a reporter whether he felt pressured by Trump to investigate the Bidens.
“I think you read text,” Zelensky said. “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be involved to democratic open elections of USA.” He called the conversation “normal” and then added, “I think — and you read it — that nobody pushed me.”
Trump, his brows knitted together, forcefully cut in at that point. “In other words — no pressure,” he said.
Even though his administration has stonewalled Democrats’ demands for documents and testimony as they investigate his activities, the president has conducted some of his most controversial behavior in full view of the public, as The Washington Post pointed out in a recent analysis, which complicates Democrats’ attempts to convince a majority of Americans that some of those actions rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Trump admitted a few days after firing Comey in an interview that he wanted to get rid of him because of the “Russia thing.” And he berated then attorney general Jeff Sessions in public for not being significantly loyal to him — a reference to Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation due to his own conflict of interest. Trump also defiantly reserved the right to accept information from a foreign government on a political rival during a TV interview. “I think I’d want to hear it,” he said in June.
Now, the president appears to be applying that strategy to the latest controversy, saying Wednesday he wanted the release of a whistle-blower complaint that his administration initially attempted to suppress because he has nothing to hide.
But this time, Trump faces an impeachment inquiry from the House, as well as serious questions about whether he directed his own attorney general to dig up information on Biden. (Barr, through the Justice Department, has denied involvement.)
“Committing a crime in plain sight doesn’t excuse the crime — it’s not a defense that you committed a crime with the world seeing it,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a former prosecutor and a Democratic member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I think the American public will see it as it is.”
Republicans sought to downplay the conversation with Zelensky, pointing out it did not show Trump directly exchanging military aid for dirt on Biden and betting that Democrats would be unable to convince a jaded and divided nation that anything short of that would be considered an impeachable offense.
Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina senator who is an ardent defender of Trump, suggested a real quid pro quo would have looked like something out of a Mafia film.
“ ‘Uh, hey pal, you know, you need to like, go after the Bidens or I ain’t gonna give you any money,’ ” Graham suggested, when asked to describe an inappropriate quid pro quo scenario. “[He’d] be really, like, thuggish about it.”
Another Trump ally, Representative Matt Gaetz, brushed off Democrats’ conviction that Trump was digging his own grave by releasing the “smoking gun” of a call. “I think the only thing smoking is this awesome cannabis bill we’re about to pass,” Gaetz said.
But other Republicans were less cavalier in their defense of the president. As reporters pressed in on him on his way into the Senate Republicans’ weekly luncheon, Senate majority whip John Thune spoke haltingly, his discomfort seemingly apparent.
“Any time you got a — talking to a foreign leader about a subject like that — yeah, I mean. . . those are sensitive matters,” Thune said. He called it “thin gruel” for an impeachment inquiry but conceded investigating Biden was “not something I would bring up.”
Still, Republican strategists and lawmakers predicted impeachment would ultimately backfire on Democrats and help Trump get reelected. And some Democrats also fear the outcome of going up against the president so skilled at navigating controversy.
“I think it’s too soon,” said Representative Jeff Van Drew, a New Jersey Democrat who flipped a district that voted for Trump in 2016. “I’ve always been clear on this. We really are opening Pandora’s box.”