Ukraine, if you’re listening …
Much as he did three years ago — when he asked Russia to hack the e-mails of his Democratic rival — President Donald Trump on Friday seemed to make a similar request of Ukraine, all but urging the Eastern European nation to investigate Joe Biden, his potential Democratic opponent.
“It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this — somebody ought to look into Joe Biden,” Trump said Friday in the Oval Office, swatting away questions about whether he had improperly attempted to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on the former vice president.
It was 2016 all over again, when Trump looked directly into the camera and exhorted a geopolitical foe to steal the e-mails of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, and release them to the public.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” Trump said in July of that year, referring to the trove of messages that Clinton deleted from a private e-mail server. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
So yes, if Ukraine happened to be listening Friday, the president’s desired outcome could not have been more clear.
For Trump, controversial public disclosures have became almost routine, with the president saying the potentially scandalous part aloud. It is a form of shamelessness worn as a badge of protection — on the implicit theory that the president’s alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view.
Less than a year after Trump’s public encouragement of Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, special counsel Robert Mueller and a host of congressional committees would devote months to investigating that very question — whether the president or his campaign had conspired with Russia and, later, whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice.
Yet Trump’s penchant for reading the stage directions almost seems to inoculate him from the kind of political damage that would devastate other politicians.
In the current controversy, the Washington Post first reported Wednesday that a whistleblower complaint that has spurred a showdown between the intelligence community and Congress involved a “promise” made by Trump to a foreign leader, now believed to be Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In response on Thursday, Trump tweeted a two-part defense in which he claimed that because he knows calls with foreign leaders are closely monitored, no one should be “dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”
Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, said Trump manages to “worm out of things” by making his bad behavior so blatant.
“I think the normal reaction for a lot of people is that something that someone does in public, it takes away the idea that it’s nefarious,” Akerman said. “They think, ‘Would he really be doing it in public if there was something wrong with it?’ ”
But Akerman added that when Trump takes actions such as asking Russia to hack Clinton’s e-mails or publicly pressuring Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, not to cooperate with prosecutors, his intent is the same — whether he acts publicly or behind closed doors.
“What he’s been saying in public is the kind of thing I used to prosecute people for doing in private,” Akerman said.
Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Trump’s confounding public behavior — for example, she said, “he says stuff in tweets that seems blatantly illegal” — allows for two competing theories.
“Are we giving him too much credit and he’s just so undisciplined that he can’t help but say and tweet these things?” she asked. “Or is he so diabolical that putting it out there is like a jujitsu move?”
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Trump’s sheer brazenness makes him a difficult target for his critics and puts him outside the scope of previous leaders brought low by high crimes and misdemeanors.
“There’s a striking contrast between Watergate, where secret tapes helped bring about the downfall of a president, and the Trump White House, where many of the statements that violate the norms of the presidency are made right out in public,” Nyhan said. “His opponents are routinely uncertain how to proceed, because they’ve never encountered a political opponent who so directly states what they mean even when it’s politically scandalous.”
In evaluating whether Trump’s actions constituted obstruction of justice, Mueller noted that “many of the President’s acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in public view.”
In his report, Mueller dubbed that reality “unusual.” Mueller ultimately decided to make no formal determination as to whether the president broke the law.