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Opinion The rough transcript is devastating. How could Trump not know that?

Pages from a rough transcript of President Trump's July 25 telephone conversation with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, released by the White House on Wednesday. (AP)

At least Richard Nixon had the good sense to resist releasing the “smoking gun” tape until finally forced to do so by the Supreme Court. That is because Nixon, the worst criminal to occupy the Oval Office until now, at least had a modicum of moral sense and self-awareness. He knew what he had said was wrong — he was heard plotting to use the CIA to shut down the FBI investigation of Watergate — and he realized that the tape’s release would be devastating to him.

President Trump, by contrast, is so clueless — so lacking in even the most basic sense of right and wrong — that he could actually tweet this morning: “Will the Democrats apologize after seeing what was said on the call with the Ukrainian President? They should, a perfect call — got them by surprise!” Suffice it to say, there were no apologies after the release of the Memorandum of Telephone Conversation (TelCon) between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25. This isn’t a verbatim transcript, and it’s always possible that it was doctored in some way, but what is revealed in its five pages is deeply damaging to Trump.

“The United States has been very very good to Ukraine,” Trump tells Zelensky with an undertone of menace. “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very very.good to Ukraine.” Eager to placate Trump, Zelensky thanks him “for your great support in the area of defense.” “We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.” (The Javelin is an antitank missile.)

The very next words out of Trump’s mouth are: “I would like you to do us a favor though because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.” Quid, meet quo. Trump is explicitly tying U.S. military aid to Ukraine to Ukraine’s willingness “to do us a favor.” He then makes clear that the “us” he is referring to is not the United States of America. It is the Trump campaign.

Josh Rogin: The White House’s Ukraine memo destroys Guiliani’s attempts to frame the State Department

Trump refers to a ridiculous conspiracy theory that the Democratic National Committee’s email server has somehow wound up in Ukraine and says, “I would like to have the Attorney General call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.” In other words, Trump is politicizing the U.S. legal system and compromising U.S. national security by demanding that the president of Ukraine cooperate with the Justice Department in a far-fetched attempt to absolve Russia of having hacked the DNC — and Trump of having won in 2016 with Russian help. “Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible,” he emphasizes.

After initially declining to discuss his conversations with Ukraine, President Trump on Sept. 22 appeared to acknowledge the two leaders discussed Joe Biden. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Trump leaves no doubt that, in addition to relitigating the 2016 election, he wants the Ukrainians to help him win in 2020: "There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”

Zelensky tries to placate Trump by assuring him that the next prosecutor “will be 100 percent my person.” Trump doesn’t give up. “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it. I’m sure you will figure it out.” Trump stresses the point once more before they hang up: “I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call.”

David Ignatius: This isn’t just another spat. Trump compromised our security for his gain.

It’s true that Trump didn’t say, “If you expect to see any more aid from us, you’d better investigate Joe Biden and Clinton,” but the threat came through loud and clear, given that at least a week before, he had put a hold on nearly $400 million of aid to Ukraine. On the call itself, Trump pivoted from Zelensky’s request for missiles to Trump’s request for an investigation of his political opponents.

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Trump did no business on behalf of the United States on this call. He did not once mention any desire to root out corruption in Ukraine or achieve any other foreign policy objective. It was all campaign business — dragging a foreign head of state and his own attorney general into his desperate efforts to win reelection and remove any taint from his initial election. As Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, notes: “The transcript of the call reads like a classic mob shakedown.”

The TelCon, far from absolving Trump, greatly strengthens the case for impeachment. If this is supposed to be exculpatory, can you imagine what the inculpatory material contained in the whistleblower’s complaint looks like? What’s truly astonishing is that Trump could have thought anything else. The most devastating aspect of this rough transcript is that Trump didn’t realize how devastating it would be for him.

That shows he literally has no idea of what a president is supposed to do — and not do. Recall that Trump’s former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said Trump often made illegal requests. The Trump-Zelensky phone call is Exhibit A.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: New revelations on Trump call and Giuliani make impeachment more likely

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president should seal his fate

Alexandra Petri: Donald Trump might get impeached? Donald Trump?

Megan McArdle: The irony in Democrats’ impeachment position

Jonathan Capehart: Nancy Pelosi has a responsibility. With impeachment, she intends to fulfill it.

Anne Applebaum: Tuesday was a turning point on both sides of the Atlantic