On Wednesday morning, the White House released a summary of President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The memorandum confirms reporting over the past week: Trump asked Zelensky to investigate Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and he discussed U.S. military aid to Ukraine in a way that appeared to possibly link the two matters.
The release of the summary sparked further outcry over a story that had already ratcheted up calls for impeachment from progressives. Even before the memo became public, more than 200 House Democrats had called for official action against Trump.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference during the 2016 election came and went without causing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to budge on impeachment — much to the consternation of many progressives, who felt the report established a credible case that Trump had obstructed justice. But following the Ukraine revelations, Pelosi called for an impeachment inquiry with the support of nearly her entire caucus.
It’s remarkable to consider what had to happen in order for things to progress this far — and how much of that momentum is due to a series of own-goals by the president and his inner circle.
Take, for example, Trump's comments before his speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. The president tried to dismiss the allegations against him with a baffling alibi, stating that his refusal to grant Ukraine aid was not about forcing a Biden investigation but rather about the fact that countries like France and Germany don’t put up their fair share of money.
“I’d withhold [aid] again, and I’ll continue to withhold,” Trump told reporters, “until such time as Europe and other nations contribute.” The U.S. has given aid to Ukraine annually ever since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, but it was reported earlier this week that Trump had ordered his acting chief of staff to freeze nearly $400 million earmarked for the country just days before his call with Zelensky. Then, late Wednesday, Trump revealed previously unknown contacts between his administration and Ukraine when he said, “I think you should ask for [Vice President Mike Pence's] conversations because he had a couple conversations."
It’s the so-called “Streisand Effect”: By trying to aggressively cover up information, a high-profile person actually ends up making that information far more visible. And the president has done this before, like when he threatened to sue Stephen Bannon, his former chief strategist, over Bannon's comments in Michael Wolff’s book Fire And Fury — thus turning the tome into a monster bestseller.
Why do people — even world leaders — blurt out information that may hurt them? Dr. Cortney S. Warren, a clinical psychologist and researcher who wrote a book about self-deception, explained the phenomenon to Mic, saying, “When people are uncomfortable with the truth, it is often expressed in communication with others. One common way this manifests is that our discomfort leads us to offer too much information about topics, with people, or in situations that are inappropriate.”
“In essence,” Warren says, “our effort to cope with the truth leads us to over self-disclose.” People sometimes disclose intimate details to unexpected confidantes precisely because those truths are embarrassing or objectionable, she says. The mechanism of “over self-disclosure,” Warren says, “generally stems from insecurity, unresolved emotions, and internal conflict about the truth. If we are comfortable with a situation or the truth, the need to overshare and disclose doesn’t exist in the same way.”
After days of press around his call with Zelensky, Trump on Tuesday authorized the release of a partial transcript of their conversation, saying the document would prove the discussion had been “very friendly and totally appropriate.” But now that a summary transcript of the call has in fact been released, it’s clear that it won’t be quieting the uproar anytime soon.
Even some Senate Republicans were “stunned” that Trump would publicize the call summary, per Washington Post reporter Robert Costa. Utah Sen. Mitt Romney (R) told reporters Wednesday that “what we’ve seen from the transcript is deeply troubling.” Another upper-chamber Republican told the Post on the condition of anonymity that releasing the document was a “huge mistake.”
All the while, the president has been tweeting practically non-stop about the allegations against him. Last week, he wrote, “Anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies … Is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call?”
He’s now posted about the allegations him dozens of times — letting more and more of the allegations drip into his florid tweets every time. ”You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call,” Trump wrote Tuesday. “No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo!”
Trump’s furious obfuscations on Ukraine have only served to demonstrate the way in which he tends to make his problems worse by oversharing. His compulsive — though selective — honesty is a baffling strategy for a president who is currently under investigation for no fewer than 30 different matters by state, federal, and congressional bodies.
Then again, perhaps it’s an understandable calculation for the president to make, considering that he faced no real consequences from the release of the Mueller report. That sprawling investigation involved nearly the same allegations — inviting a foreign government to help smear a political rival. Yet even when the final report practically begged Congress to act, it did not.
Notably, Mueller testified to Congress about his report on July 24 — only one day before Trump’s phone call with Zelensky. Trump could have viewed the Mueller report’s limited fallout as a close call, and a warning about the dangers of flying too close to the sun.
Instead, it appears he interpreted it as a greenlight to repeat the same reckless behavior. Only this time, he may have gone too far, thanks to how simple and direct the Ukraine issue is. Where the question of Russian election interference was tangled and full of shadowy intermediaries and anonymous leaks, the basic allegations in the Ukraine scandal can be explained in just a few sentences.
(Here's an attempt: Trump may have pressured a foreign leader to investigate a political rival by leveraging aid money destined for that leader's country. The political rival, meanwhile, is a strong contender to be Trump's election opponent in 2020 — making the whole affair a possible invitation by the president to meddle in an American election.)
The Mueller report was long and technical, and many Democrats, especially those in swing districts, felt that it wasn’t worth the risk of alienating voters to try to impeach the president over allegations that felt nebulous. With Ukraine, the facts themselves are laid out in one document — and in Trump’s own words.
“There are features of this episode that made it especially suited to fuel an impeachment inquiry,” Alexander Theodoridis, a professor of political science at the University of California at Merced, told Mic. “It provided a very recent example of a pattern of behavior by Trump that many find unacceptable. It is tied directly to [Trump] and involves him acting in his capacity as president of the United States. It involves a direct challenge to the authority of Congress.”
All that makes it much easier to act on, Theodoridis says, plus the fact that the matter involves “a future election rather than a relitigation of a completed contest.” Furthermore, “the story came out and took shape quickly, rather than dripping out over a long period of time.”
How this all plays out from an electoral perspective remains to be seen — the 2020 election is “an eternity away in political time,” Theodoridis says. Perhaps the Ukraine issue will fade away in the churn of the news cycle, as so many other Trump scandals have. But if this one phone call does result in full impeachment proceedings against the president, the Ukraine issue will have far surpassed the Mueller report in its damage to Trump’s presidency.
And it will all be the president’s own fault.