Whistleblower Scandal Contains Reminder of Last Scandal: Time for a New One?

by Michael C. Dorf (cross-posted on TakeCare)

Thus far, most of the press coverage and political discussion of Donald Trump's July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has understandably focused on Trump's request that Zelensky accept the help of Attorney General William Barr and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in digging up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden. Yet that was only the second of two favors for which Trump asked. ("Favor" and "asked" are used here generously. Despite the comical joint appearance of Trump and Zelensky at the UN on Wednesday in which Trump denied applying any "pressure," in light of what the whistleblower complaint states--at p.2 of the formerly classified appendix--it would be more accurate to say that Trump attempted to extort cooperation from Zelensky, using US military funding as leverage.)

However, Trump didn't try to extort cooperation only with respect to investigating Biden père et fils. He also sought Zelensky's cooperation with AG Barr in investigating CrowdStrike. As this Slate article helpfully explains, Trump was (and probably still is) under the misimpression that to investigate the 2016 Russian hack of the DNC, a single server was shipped to Ukraine, where it went missing. It's all nonsense, of course, but the conspiracy theory seems to be that the Russians didn't hack the DNC at all and therefore, you know, Russian-hoax-witch-hunt-total-exoneration.

Trump's pursuit of the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory in his Zelensky call shows that he is every bit the fool that he often appears, rather than some evil genius. It's one thing to retweet delusional QAnon agit-prop for the purpose of keeping the base happy, but here Trump was extorting action from a foreign leader for nothing of value. Why?

The only explanation that makes any sense is that Trump really thought that there was some secret DNC server locked away in Ukraine that would, with Barr and Giuliani on the case, vindicate him once and for all against the great Russian hoax. Trump is as much a dupe of outlandish self-contradictory conspiracy theories as his most rabid supporters are.

The CrowdStrike request also demonstrates Trump's foolishness in another way. The Trump/Zelensky phone call occurred just over a week after Robert Mueller testified before Congress. That testimony hardly exonerated Trump in any way, but it contained no new bombshells and was widely regarded as unhelpful to Democrats who wanted to impeach Trump based on the Mueller investigation. It was clear by the time of the Zelensky call that Speaker Pelosi was not going to impeach Trump based on his 2016 campaign's receptiveness to Russian assistance or its obstruction of justice. If Trump had any sense, he would have done everything possible to shift attention away from the Russia story.

Yet there Trump was on July 25, still looking for the "oranges" of the Mueller investigation. Sure, he wanted dirt on Joe Biden, but he also wanted what he really thought would be evidence that the Mueller investigation originated (oranginated?) with Democrats pretending that their server was hacked by Russians and then, mumble mumble mumble, I don't know, Democrats leaked their own embarrassing hacked emails to WikiLeaks. These are the sorts of nonsensical and delusional things the actual president of the United States seriously believed.

Perhaps the best that can be said for Trump in this latest affair is that he is too amoral and stupid to have realized that his shakedown of a foreign leader with the goal of advancing his domestic political standing was grossly inappropriate and arguably criminal. Perhaps it was only the people around Trump who tried to bury the Trump/Zelensky readout, rather than Trump himself, because they, but not he, recognized the extremely damning facts it revealed. If so, then Trump wouldn't have realized that he was taking a huge risk--risking getting caught conditioning aid to a foreign country on the foreign country's assistance getting dirt on his political rival. If Trump's amorality and stupidity prevented him from realizing the risk he was taking, then he might not also have been aware of the fact that he was squandering some of that risk on an insane conspiracy theory that would not do him any good. That's the best I can say for Trump.

An episode like the Zelensky phone call should serve as a reminder of how much bad luck accounts for Trump's political survival even to the extent he has survived politically. Pundits frequently observe how Trump survives multiple scandals, any one of which would have been enough to bring down an ordinary politician. Mostly that's a function of the concentration of Trump's base in states that are over-represented in the Senate, but it's also a function of the public's and the news media's limited attention span. Trump does not so much survive or even outlast scandals as he distracts the public from them by serving up a new scandal.

I have heard thoughtful people say that Trump follows a conscious strategy of burying one bad story by creating a new one, but I don't believe it. The scandal over the Zelensky call was not a result of any effort by Trump or his people to distract anyone. Trump's people tried hard to bury the story, but it came out anyway. The same is true of various of Trump's other scandals.

Although Trump isn't deliberately using each new scandal to distract from the last one, the phenomenon is nonetheless maddening. It's like a game of Bizarro World Whack-a-mole in which each time you whack a mole another hammer emerges that somehow enables the same mole to escape. But knowing that Trump and his people are the beneficiaries of dumb luck means that the roughly 58% of the American People who cannot stomach Trump's awfulness can steel ourselves against Bizarro Whack-a-mole by remembering.

So, when Trump's next outrage emerges--like his suggestion yesterday that whistleblowers and those who aid them should be hanged--by all means be outraged. But do not forget any of the previous outrages.