Here Are the Two Key Elements of the Trump-Zelensky Call on Which the Media Missed the Point
There is a strange phenomenon in modern news media that the bigger the story is, and the more live coverage that it is given, the better the chance that significant portions of it will be either misconstrued or simply missed altogether. Thus was the case once again with Wednesday’s day-long reporting on the release of a rough transcript of the clearly impeachment-worthy July 25th phone call between President Donald Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine.
For obvious reasons, almost all of the focus has been on Trump’s highly corrupt suggestion to Zelensky that his country open up, with the help of our president’s personal lawyer and our attorney general, a bogus investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. There is no doubt that this part of the call is critical, however it should not have completely dominated the news coverage as much as it did.
Nearly everyone — including myself, until I revisited the issue after watching Rachel Maddow’s MSNBC show (damn, these are strange times!) — missed the meaning of the first thing Trump says after asking Zelensky for “a favor, though.” At first glance, his reference to “CrowdStrike” and his nearly incoherent verbiage which followed (at least according to the transcript), allowed this confusing passage to be largely bypassed on the way to the “good stuff” involving the Bidens.
Later in the day, Trump himself provided some more hints about what that section was really all about, suggesting that Hillary Clinton’s “deleted emails,” a nonsensical obsession widely shared among Sean Hannity super fans, were in Ukraine. If the president of the United States was merely leveraging a foreign country to help him establish a nutty theory that Russia (an enemy of Ukraine) didn’t really hack into the DNC’s server, it would be bizarre and horrendous enough to at least create a scandal, but this appears to be potentially much worse than just that type of insanity.
Based on the timing when this request for a “favor” was made, it sure seems that what Trump was really doing was trying to help his old pal Roger Stone’s defense in his federal trial — which is scheduled to start in a couple of months. There is even a logical theory that his efforts here may be to help protect himself from being implicated in that trial with regard to his potential knowledge of Stone’s “collusion” with WikiLeaks/Russia.
So to be clear, it is more than plausible that what the president of the United States was doing here was asking for a foreign country to help substantiate a crazy theory in an effort help his friend defeat the U.S. government’s case in a court of law, while also protecting himself. Oh, and he also asks to make sure that our — in effect, his personal — Attorney General Bill Barr be kept directly in the loop on this wild goose chase.
Even by Trump standards, that’s just nuts!
As for the Biden allegation, Trump’s prime defense appears to be that there is no “quid pro quo” in the call (at least not in the “transcript” of it) and that therefore there was somehow nothing criminal about it. There have been a lot of solid explanations given as to why this entire concept is totally ridiculous (including the apparent reality that Zelensky was well aware of what Trump wanted regarding Biden before the call even happened), but most of them focus on what Trump said in the call, rather than on Zelensky’s incredibly obsequious responses.
Most people have correctly viewed the conversation as if Trump is a mob boss intimidating a corrupt cop over whom he has extreme leverage. And this imagery has real value. There is another analogy, however, which may also be beneficial here.
When then-President Bill Clinton began his infamous affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which would eventually lead to his impeachment, it’s doubtful that he and his mistress ever directly agreed that he would get blowjobs in exchange for a little presidential attention and some measly gifts. After Monica first flashed her thong at him, there was no need for someone in a position as powerful as the presidency to do so because, after all, she was more than willing to give Clinton everything he wanted without him having to do much more than hint at it.
In this situation, Trump is Clinton, Zelensky is Lewinsky. Throughout the call in question, Zelensky sucked up to Trump more overtly than a host of Fox and Friends, not only making it very obvious that he was willing to do whatever Trump wanted him to, but even going out of his way to mention that he stayed in the Trump Tower while in New York.
When there is such a dramatic power differential between two parties, there is no need for an explicit “quid pro quo.” All that is needed is a wink, a nod, or a flash of a thong. It is not in the “transcript,” but you can almost hear a fawning Zelensky whispering to Trump, “You had me at ‘do us a favor!’”
It is particularly appropriate, and more than a bit ironic that, thanks to this super-friendly phone call, Trump is now headed towards being the first president since Clinton to be impeached. Appropriate because both of them deserved to be impeached (Trump even more so than Clinton did), but also because both situations involved different forms of presidential phone sex.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at email@example.com
[Photo by Roberto Schmidt/Getty Images]
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.