But on Monday, Trump appeared to inch ever closer to admitting the underlying allegation raised by that same whistleblower.
Talking to reporters Monday morning at the United Nations, Trump suggested that there would be nothing wrong with him withholding funding to a country such as Ukraine if it refused to root out “corruption” — hypothetically speaking, of course.
“We’re supporting a country; we want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt? . . . So it’s very important that, on occasion, you speak to somebody about corruption.”
Trump was essentially doing what Giuliani did Thursday: laying a preemptive defense in case it emerges that Trump did offer Ukraine something or threatened (explicitly or implicitly) to withhold something — such as $250 million in aid, which Trump did withhold for a time — in exchange for Ukraine investigating former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Trump refers broadly to “corruption,” but that’s the umbrella term used to talk about investigating the Bidens (conveniently, without alluding to the fact that this is an issue in which Trump has a very personal stake). And the argument would cover just such an arrangement.
Giuliani offered a similar argument Thursday, while clarifying that he did not know exactly what had gone down.
“The reality is the president of the United States has every right to say to another leader of a foreign country, ‘You got to straighten up before we give you a lot of money,’” Giuliani said. “It is perfectly appropriate for [Trump] to ask a foreign government to investigate this massive crime that was made by a former vice president.”
Giuliani notably told Fox Business Network on Monday that Trump made no such threat against Ukraine — before checking himself and saying he couldn’t guarantee it:
BARTIROMO: Did the president threaten to cut off aid to the Ukraine?GIULIANI: No, no that was a false story.BARTIROMO: One hundred percent?GIULIANI: Well, I can’t tell you if it’s 100 percent.
Trump seemed to revert to denying the allegation in a tweet not long after he talked to the media.
The progression of the comments from the Trump team follows a familiar pattern. To get ahead of bad news, Trump acolytes often will deny or decline to confirm the underlying charge, but also offer a preemptive defense in case it’s proven. As evidence finds its way out, though — and as Trump himself keeps talking publicly — we eventually learn that the initial suspicions were correct and they were offering a preemptive defense for a reason.
It was the pattern followed with the Stormy Daniels hush-money payments. They first denied it completely, then Giuliani got out in front of the story by arguing that there would be nothing wrong with it because it was simply a private transaction (even though it occurred shortly before the 2016 election). At the time, Trump himself denied that he had any knowledge of what went down, but eventually it was discovered that he was aware of the payment in real time.
The pattern also held at various points during the Russia investigation, when Trump would dismiss accusations or media reports as “fake news” before later trying to inoculate himself even if the story was true, and then eventually admitting that it did happen. The most pronounced example would be Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Russia lawyer.
Just because both Trump and Giuliani are offering preemptive defenses, that doesn’t prove what the whistleblower said was accurate. We don’t even know exactly what the whistleblower alleges, beyond that it involves Ukraine and some kind of “promise,” and that it was regarding more than a single communication.
But if the complaint is completely without merit, you don’t really need to litigate what might happen if it turns out to be true. And history suggests this is a strong signal of what’s to come — whether Trump’s talks with the Ukrainians included an explicit quid pro quo or not.