One thing he didn’t say was, “This is a quid pro quo in which you’ll sleep with me or lose your career.”
Sentient humans could read between the lines. There was what he actually said, and there was what he didn’t say because he didn’t need to; his power and his position said it for him.
The White House released the official readout of President Trump’s phone conversation with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky more than a month ago, and we still cannot agree on what he said. “President Trump never said to the Ukrainian President, ‘Do this and you’ll get your aid.’ It is simply not here,” senior adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN on Sunday. “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!” Trump himself tweeted on Monday morning.
And, we have. My God, how we have read the transcript (which, not for nothing, isn’t a full transcript). We have read Trump instructing Zelensky, “I would like you to do us a favor.” We have read him saying, “The United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.” We’ve combed through it all.
One thing Trump did not say is, “This is a quid pro quo in which you’ll give me dirt on Joe Biden; and, in exchange, I’ll stop withholding your aid.” Conway was correct about that much. He didn’t say, “Let’s move onto the illegal part of the conversation now.” He certainly didn’t say, “Real quick, let me abuse my power.”
But when we talk about what Trump said on that phone call, we’re really talking about what powerful people never need to say at all.
When your boss mentions, “I’d love if that report was waiting on my desk Monday morning,” he doesn’t need to add, “Or your performance evaluation is toast.” The last bit is implied by his title; you know that refusing to work over the weekend comes at your own peril. He knows it, too; that’s the entire point of the exchange.
When a police officer says, “Want to step out of the car for me?” his badge informs you that the rest of that request does not end with, “If not, no big deal.” It ends with, “Or I might arrest you.”
When the president of a network, or a famous TV anchor, or a member of Congress, calls an underling into their office and says, “I would like to kiss you,” there’s always a second, unspoken half of the sentence: or else.
And when the president of the United States waxes on about how good his country has been to your country, and how it would be a shame for that to end . . .
We can have a lot of conversations about Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president, but I hope one conversation is about power and consent, and how powerful people use insinuation to get what they want while protecting themselves from accountability.
It happens to be one of the president’s favorite rhetorical moves. It was the centerpiece of James B. Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Regarding misdeeds by former national security adviser Michael Flynn, the former FBI director testified that the president told him, “I hope you can let this go,” which Comey took as a directive, not a wish. “I mean, this is a president of the United States with me alone,” Comey said.
And as recently as Tuesday morning, Trump was vaguely menacing the entire state of Virginia: “With all of the massive amount of defense and other work I brought to you, and with everything planned, go out and vote Republican today.”
He could have simply meant, “Republicans have been better for Virginia than Democrats would be,” but the structure of the sentence, and the allusion to projects hanging in the balance, suggests that what he actually meant was, Quid pro quo. Or else.
Nice defense contracts you got there. It would be a shame if I had to take them away.
“He speaks in a code,” Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, told members of Congress in February, “and I understand the code.”
We all do. The code is easy to recognize.
This isn’t an issue of Democrat vs. Republican, or it shouldn’t be, at least. It’s an issue of how “Read the transcript” is not an invitation for truth-seeking; it’s a disingenuous feint provided by a powerful man who, like all people in power, knows that his wishes will be treated as commands, and his subtexts will be treated as boldface type. It’s a tidy way to keep gloves clean even while fingertips are dirty. And it gives people like Kellyanne Conway the ability to point at his words on the page and say that the president’s enemies are making it all up.
The rough transcript doesn’t say it. But it says it, you know? It says it in the same way that Harvey Weinstein can try to coerce Ambra Gutierrez up to his room, relentlessly implying that refusal would cost her livelihood, and still claim that everything was consensual.
It’s such a bizarre folly to pretend we don’t understand what people are saying. It’s such a maddening exercise, to point at a collection of words and insist that the true meaning is in the white space between them. It makes you feel crazy.
It’s not crazy. It’s a time-honored practice from people in power, convincing you that their words are perfect, just perfect. No high crimes, no misdemeanors. Nothing is on the page. Everything is in your head.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more, visit wapo.st/hesse.