The Ukraine phone call and why things are different this time for Trump
The benefit of the doubt is gone, but the evidence is there. | Doyle McManus
President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci); Transcript of Trump conversation with Ukraine's newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskiy (AP Photo/Wayne Partlow)
President Donald Trump (AP Photo/Evan Vucci); Transcript of Trump conversation with Ukraine's newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskiy (AP Photo/Wayne Partlow) [ Associated Press ]
Published Sept. 25, 2019

President Donald Trump sounds like a man whose story is unraveling.

On Sunday, Trump insisted he never blocked nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine that a bipartisan majority in Congress had approved to help Kiev counter aggression from neighboring Russia.

“I didn’t delay anything,” he told reporters at the White House.

On Tuesday, after the Washington Post reported that Trump had ordered White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to withhold the aid, the president changed course: Yes, he said, I delayed it and I’m proud of it.

“I’d withhold again,” he said. “And I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute.”

Barely a week into the strange saga of Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, reportedly to demand that Ukraine investigate Joe Biden’s son, the president is already on his fourth explanation.

Explanation No. 1: I didn’t do it.

Explanation No. 2: I didn’t do it, but it would have been OK if I did.

Explanation No. 3: I did it, but for a different reason than you think.

Explanation No. 4: Never mind what I did. What about Biden?

“Joe Biden and his son are corrupt, OK?” he said Monday. “If a Republican ever said what Joe Biden said, they’d be getting the electric chair by right now.”

This is mudslinging of the lowest order: a sitting U.S. president accusing a major political rival of criminal corruption, not to mention a capital offense — without any evidence. To use a more modern term, it’s disinformation intended to take the heat off Trump.

The case that Joe Biden did something wrong in Ukraine is essentially nonexistent. I say “essentially” because when he was vice president, Biden pressed Ukraine to fire a corrupt and ineffective prosecutor who had earlier investigated the owner of an energy company where Biden’s son, Hunter, was on the board.

But the inquiry was no longer active in 2016 when Biden weighed in — and his message was part of a joint effort by the Obama administration, other countries and the International Monetary Fund to clamp down on corruption in Ukraine. It wasn’t aimed at protecting the vice president or his son.

Trump isn’t trying to help voters examine the gnarly history of foreign aid and corruption in Ukraine. He’s trying to divert attention from his own apparent attempt to use U.S. foreign policy for personal gain, a clear abuse of power.

That’s why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., announced a formal impeachment inquiry on Tuesday. She had little choice; more than two-thirds of her Democratic caucus, including a growing number of moderates, had called for impeachment.

No one should be surprised that the more Trump’s troubles grew, the more he lashed out at Biden. Trump’s response to any charge of misconduct is to point the finger at someone else. “When I’m wounded, I go after people hard, OK?” he said in 2016.

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That year, after smearing one Republican rival after another, his main target was the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, whom he falsely called “the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency.”

Once in the White House, he called the FBI and its then-director, James B. Comey, corrupt for investigating him. He even demanded an investigation of former President Obama for the purported misdeed of signing a book deal.

It has Democrats fretting that they and the media will fall into the same trap, letting Trump define the debate and fight on his own terms.

I think they’re wrong. This time will be different.

Here’s why: Trump no longer gets the benefit of the doubt. His record of exaggeration and falsehood is far too long to take anything he says at face value.

In 2016, the media expected Hillary Clinton to win the election, so they treated every charge against her as a major story — including how she managed her private email system. Reporters expected Trump to lose, so they spent less time on his multiple bankruptcies, his run-ins with regulators and his abusive behavior toward women. Now he’s in the crosshairs.

Moreover, major media organizations have already investigated Biden’s son. They all reached the same conclusion: Hunter Biden showed poor judgment and created the appearance of conflicts of interest, but no evidence suggests his father did anything wrong. Trump knows that too: After all, he asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, not the FBI.

Trump, on the other hand, is knee-deep in intrigues. After a week of refusals, he released a rough transcript of his conversations with Zelensky. But he still hasn’t let Congress see the whistleblower’s complaint and inspector general’s report that launched this scandal, which makes it look as though he’s hiding something.

Here’s the bottom line: If Trump blocked foreign aid from Ukraine to get its help in his reelection campaign, that’s a cardinal abuse of power — the kind of “high crime and misdemeanor” that could get him impeached.

But that won’t deter him from throwing more mud — or, as he puts it, “going after people hard.”

Here’s a prediction: At his next campaign rally, if the pattern holds, the president will give Joe Biden a new nickname: Crooked Joe. You read it here first. But even if he says it over and over, that won’t make it true.

© 2019 Los Angeles Times. Visit the Los Angeles Times at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.