WASHINGTON — When he emerged from the special counsel’s two-year investigation unscathed by criminal charges, President Trump yelled from the rooftops of Twitter and cable news: TOTAL EXONERATION!
But he was not ready to move on.
It wasn’t enough that Trump avoided charges of obstruction of justice, or that Robert Mueller failed to establish a conspiracy between his presidential campaign and the Russian operatives working to boost his candidacy. Trump appeared determined to prove that Russia never helped his campaign at all, which would establish that his unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton was his and his alone.
And so, in the explosive whistle-blower complaint and the White House’s own record of the call revealed last week, a picture emerged of a president seeking to deputize Ukraine to help him, violating diplomatic norms and, possibly, as Democrats are now trying to determine, his oath of office in the process.
Now, it appears Trump’s fixation with settling scores over the Russia investigation — as well as his desire to win reelection and penchant for conspiracy theories — have landed him right back where he started: in the crosshairs of a congressional investigation into whether he solicited aid from a foreign nation for his own political gain.
“The point where you are requesting a favor from a country and that favor is not for your country but it’s for you personally, that’s where I think we’re crossing a potential line here,” said Fernando Cutz, who was an adviser to General H.R. McMaster, the president’s former national security adviser.
The whistle-blower’s complaint, as well as a White House reconstruction of the phone call between Trump and Ukranian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, has become the road map for a Democratic impeachment inquiry five months after it seemed that the biggest shadow over Trump’s presidency — the Mueller investigation — had passed.
But the two documents made public last week also offer a remarkable window into the mind-set of a president consumed with a conspiracy theory about the origins of the investigation into his 2016 campaign, and willing to bend the rules to validate that victory and secure the next one. And this is all taking place inside a West Wing missing many of the tempering influences who were present at the outset of Trump’s presidency.
“He struggles to trust others, and keeps his own counsel, obviously at his peril,” said Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer.
The White House’s reconstruction of the call with Zelensky shows Trump at his backslapping, cajoling best, in full control of a conversation with a weaker ally. Yet as he assumed the role of the superior power in position to protect Ukraine, he was also careful to portray himself and the United States as victims, too.
“I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot,” Trump said, according to the memo, “and Ukraine knows a lot about it.”
One big ask seemed to reference a baseless conspiracy theory that challenges the US intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian operatives hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s servers during the 2016 election, and suggests Ukranian interests framed Russia. Elements of that theory have been promoted by right-wing websites and Russian media.
“The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said, and then mentioned the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which was hired by the DNC to investigate the hack, and which concluded the Russians were involved.
“As you saw yesterday, that whole nonsense ended with a very poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance,” Trump said on the call, which took place one day after Mueller testified before Congress. “But they say a lot of it started with Ukraine. Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
Trump then asked Zelensky to “look into” former vice president Joe Biden — the Democratic challenger who has been polling well ahead of Trump in a 2020 matchup — and his son Hunter Biden over unfounded allegations of corruption.
“Whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” he said to Zelensky.
Mueller’s report had detailed Trump’s anger and fear that the special counsel investigation would cast doubt over the legitimacy of his win, a frustration he has shared with multiple aides. That fear appears to have lingered, preventing Trump from simply moving on from the political reprieve he was handed by the report’s release last spring.
“I think when presidents are being accused, like anyone else, they can get a little bit conspiratorial,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor who has advised Trump in the past. “I do think the Ukraine connection is a bit stretched, but he’s very focused on trying to demonstrate he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Trump has long derided the Russia investigation as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt,” and in recent months has embraced fringe theories about its origin.
“The power of conspiracy theories at the highest levels of power is pretty striking,” said Julian Zelizer, a history professor at Princeton University. “He and many of his advisers see the world through arguments — without evidence — of persons who are out to get them.”
When asked during a news conference Wednesday to explain why it was appropriate for the US president to ask a foreign leader for information on a political rival, Trump’s answer was right from the fever swamps: “The witch hunt,” he asserted, started with President Obama asking a foreign leader for damaging information on him.
“There have been some fantastic books that just came out recently and so many other books,” Trump said, citing a book by a Fox News analyst called “The Russia Hoax” that defended his campaign. “A lot of books are coming out. When you start reading those books, you see what they did to us.”
Then he again cited his victory in 2016, listing his Electoral College totals. “We won an election convincingly, convincingly,” he said.
Last week’s revelations also offer new insights into the inner workings of the White House as it enters an impeachment battle and reelection fight. According to the whistle-blower, administration officials hid the official transcript of the president’s call with Zelensky by putting it into in a highly classified computer system reserved for national security matters.
Richard Ben-Veniste, a special prosecutor during Watergate, said that move bore an “eerie similarity” to the scandal that eventually brought down President Richard M. Nixon.
“There’s a recognition immediately by those surrounding the president that he has done something bad,” Ben-Veniste said. “We have an allegation that there was an immediate effort by the White House to sequester the evidence of the conversation the president had with Mr. Zelensky by . . . making an essentially bogus claim of national security that put the material under very highly classified protection.”
And, as the complaint suggests, Trump does not face the same pushback from top staffers and advisers that he used to, further insulating him in an echo chamber that is often filled with misinformation. Mueller’s report, for example, revealed that several former aides, including confidant Corey Lewandowski and White House counsel Don McGahn, refused to carry out Trump’s orders to attempt to interfere in the investigation, likely protecting Trump from additional accusations of obstruction.
This time around, the president’s close friend Rudy Giuliani has himself been raising questions about the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine for months, and Trump appeared confident that Attorney General William Barr would also come to his aid, by speaking with Zelensky about the matter. The Department of Justice has denied Barr spoke with Trump about having Ukraine look into the Bidens.
“The initial White House that we had was designed by the Republican National Committee,” said former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo. “This one is designed by President Donald Trump.”