The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In rollicking 53-minute conversation, Trump embraces conspiracies, spreads falsehoods and insults opponents

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump called in to “Fox & Friends” on Friday morning to promise bombshells, peddle conspiracy theories, attack his enemies and play the role of persecuted victim. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Speaking to his favorite morning television hosts Friday, President Trump offered a window into his state of mind as he faces his greatest political threat yet.

As his unfiltered thoughts streamed from his mind, through a telephone receiver and onto the airwaves of Fox News for 53 minutes, it became clear that the prospect of impeachment has changed nothing about Trump’s un­or­tho­dox approach to the presidency.

He continued to make lofty promises of soon-to-come bombshells, peddle falsehoods, spread long-debunked conspiracy theories, attack his perceived enemies and dabble in misogynistic tropes — all while playing the role of persecuted victim.

Trump’s phone conversation with the hosts of “Fox & Friends” also undercut Republicans’ strained efforts to defend him during the House impeachment inquiry.

House Republicans undercut some of their arguments in the impeachment inquiry while questioning witnesses Fiona Hill and David Holmes on Nov. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

He attacked witnesses — including those who had been requested by Republicans — saying he hardly knew them. He continued to smear his former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and said House Republicans hadn’t followed his example only because, they told him, “she’s a woman, we have to be nice.” And he briefly appeared to welcome the prospect of being impeached by the House, saying “I want a trial” in the Senate.

The latest on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump

Trump also parroted the unfounded theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for hacking Democrats’ emails during the 2016 presidential campaign, a baseless claim most Republican lawmakers tried to sidestep during the hearings.

“They gave the server to CrowdStrike, or whatever it’s called, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian,” the president said, indicating that his concerns about “corruption” in Ukraine were linked to a politically convenient conspiracy theory. “That’s a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company?”

Trump’s former homeland security adviser, Tom Bossert, has said he repeatedly informed the president that the allegation was false. On Thursday, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee took umbrage when Trump’s former Russia adviser, Fiona Hill, accused them of promoting a “fictional narrative” of Ukrainian election meddling promoted by the Kremlin.

Trump appeared unfazed by the fact that not even his staunchest defenders have embraced his claims about CrowdStrike, a company he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate during the July 25 phone call at the heart of the impeachment proceedings.

“Are you sure they did that? Are you sure they gave it to Ukraine?” Fox’s Steve Doocy asked Trump.

“Well, that’s what the word is,” the president said, offering no evidence. “That’s what I asked, actually, in my phone call, if you know. I asked it very point blank because we’re looking for corruption.”

Republican lawmakers have tried to make the case that Trump withheld military aid and a White House visit from Ukraine while seeking investigations of Democrats in part because he had legitimate concerns about corruption in the country. House Democrats have dismissed that defense, saying Trump and his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani used the pretext of corruption to try to secure probes targeting former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as the unfounded claims about Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election.

Several witnesses from Trump’s own administration have testified that the president’s push for “investigations” was a thinly veiled political effort to boost his reelection chances.

How Trump keeps making it tougher for his GOP impeachment defenders

While Trump’s convoluted impeachment defense has lacked consistency, his Fox interview underscored how he has never wavered in his willingness to attack Democrats.

He blasted House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) as a “sick puppy,” called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “crazy as a bedbug” and, without evidence, accused top officials from the Obama administration of “spying on my campaign.”

His attacks got an assist from Fox’s Ainsley Earhardt, who helped the president peddle the falsehood that Trump’s release of a rough transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky had undermined Democrats’ impeachment claims.

“Why did [Schiff] make up my statement?” Trump asked, referring to an exaggerated account of the phone call Schiff gave that added mob-boss flair to the president’s actual words.

“Because he didn’t think you were going to release the transcript,” Earhardt responded.

“That’s right,” Trump replied. “Exactly.”

Except it was wrong. Schiff’s rendition came after the White House released the rough transcript of the call.

The Fox News hosts also repeatedly challenged Trump to offer evidence when he made his most head-scratching claims. The president repeatedly demurred.

“What are you talking about?” Doocy asked when Trump predicted that his Justice Department was on the verge of exposing “perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of our country.”

Trump’s answer was vague.

“I think you’re going to see things that are going to be incredible,” he said, adding that he has not been personally involved in any of the Justice Department’s investigations into the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe.

“Who is your source that’s telling you this?” Fox’s Brian Kilmeade asked when Trump claimed that Obama administration officials had worked to undermine his presidency from its earliest days.

“I can’t tell you that,” Trump answered. “I can only say that we have a lot of information that a lot of bad things happened.”

“You electrified the wall?” Kilmeade asked when the president casually claimed that the barrier on the southern border had been equipped with electricity.

“We’re building a fantastic wall,” Trump responded. It wasn’t clear if he had heard the question.

Trump’s classic braggadocio was on display for much of the interview, in tandem with his penchant for playing the victim. He complained of negative media coverage while claiming that his administration had accomplished more than any other in history. He also credited himself with saving thousands of lives in Hong Kong.

“If it weren’t for me, Hong Kong would’ve been obliterated in 14 minutes,” he said, claiming that China had refrained from cracking down on pro-democracy protesters at his request.

He also suggested that, to pave the way for a trade deal with China, he might veto bipartisan legislation designed to support the Hong Kong protesters.

“We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi [Jinping],” Trump said.

He complained that he had not been given adequate credit for the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi during a raid he approved last month.

“If Obama did al-Baghdadi, the biggest terrorist in the last 100 years, if Obama did it, it would be a two-year story,” Trump said. “With me, I got a day. Not that it matters.”

He lamented that when he arrived in Washington, the government was filled with “thousands of people that are Never Trumpers,” people he said are now testifying against him.

But many of the witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, including Hill, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker and acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, are people his administration specifically hired.

Trump also launched into gender-specific criticism of several women, including one in his own White House.

He described Yovanovitch as “the ambassador, the woman,” and described a conversation with Republicans in which her gender was brought up.

“I said, ‘Why are you being so kind?,’ ” Trump said, before recounting what he said was the GOP response: “Well sir, she’s a woman, we have to be nice.”

“This was not an angel, this woman, okay?” he said.

Yovanovitch testified last week that she was forced to leave her post in Ukraine because of a smear campaign led by Trump’s allies.

Trump described Pelosi, the first female speaker of the House, as “not talented,” “highly overrated” and “totally incompetent.”

And he criticized the husband of one of his top White House aides, Kellyanne Conway, by hinting that he had been traumatized by the marriage.

“Kellyanne is great, but she’s married to a total whack job,” Trump said. “She must’ve done some number on him, Ainsley. . . . He’s got to be some kind of a nut job. She must’ve done some bad things to him, because that guy is crazy.”