“I feel there was in the 2016 campaign — there was tremendous corruption against me,” said Trump, transforming himself — a man who has now publicly asked no fewer than three foreign countries (Russia, Ukraine and China) to look into his political opponents — into the victim of corrupt behavior.
And he was just getting started.
“I was investigated, I was investigated, okay?” he said, before pointing at himself — two rapid-fire taps to his right breast — and adding: “Me! Me!”
He barked at the media that it was he who ran, he who won, he who was investigated, before accusing the assembled press: “You won’t say that, will you?”
Finally, he began wrapping up: “I was investigated. I was investigated. And they think it could have been by U.K. They think it could have been by Australia. They think it could have been by Italy. So when you get down to it, I was investigated by the Obama administration.”
“By the Obama administration,” he concluded, shouting now, and using both hands to point at himself, “I was investigated.”
It was unclear, exactly, to which unfounded, unproven theory Trump was referring.
Perhaps he was incorrectly claiming that Barack Obama’s administration was investigating him. In fact, the FBI opened investigations into several of his campaign aides — including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, both foreign policy advisers — but not actually Trump himself.
Or maybe he was conflating Christopher Steele — a former British intelligence officer who during the 2016 campaign compiled a dossier of damaging information on then-candidate Trump — with the British government itself.
But either way, Trump was angry, and his rambling question-and-answer session seemed to convey an essential truth: That he considers it fair game for him ask foreign governments to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter — who, Trump claimed again with no evidence, were the perpetrators of “tremendous corruption.”
The president has long been comfortable with conspiracy theories. His political rise was abetted by the racist lie of birtherism — the false claim that Obama was not born in the United States. But ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, and now amid the throes of an impeachment inquiry, Trump seems to have moved into a split-screen reality — one in which he is the hero who has, as he tweeted Thursday, the “absolute right” to do just about anything he pleases.
And his South Lawn session Friday again laid bare the incongruity between actual facts and what the president espouses.
Trump repeatedly insisted that he was not worried about Biden as a possible 2020 rival — “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign, but I do care about corruption,” he said — a claim undermined by the fact that Trump fixated on Biden, mentioning the former vice president more than two dozen times.
The president as caped anti-corruption crusader is also undermined by his own previous behavior. He refused to condemn and was slow to dismiss some of his own Cabinet officials, including former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt and former interior secretary Ryan Zinke, amid ethical lapses and controversy. Unlike previous presidents, both Democratic and Republican, Trump has often expressed admiration and fondness for dictators, rather than pressuring them to improve their record on human rights.
He again claimed his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — during which he asked that the Ukrainians dig up dirt on Biden as “a favor” — was “perfect,” and that when he released notes from the conversation, the reaction was positive.
“They say, ‘Wow, this is incredible,’ ” Trump said. “We’re very proud of that call.”
In fact, even some of his Republican allies have been reticent to publicly defend the content of the call, and on Friday, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), a former GOP presidential nominee, criticized Trump in a duo of tweets.
“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” Romney wrote. “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Trump also falsely claimed that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the president’s phone call with Zelensky was “wonderful.” Though McConnell did defend Trump in a statement to Politico, saying the Democrats had “already overplayed their hand” by using the phone call to launch an impeachment inquiry, he was hardly effusive about Trump’s conversation with Zelensky.
The president also accused Hunter Biden of taking “a billion and a half dollars out of China.” He seemed to be referring to the sum of money that a private-equity company based in China had said it hoped to raise. Hunter Biden became a board member of the firm, BHR Partners, in 2013, and later acquired a 10 percent interest in the entity overseeing the fund — but his lawyer has described Trump’s allegations against him as “a gross misrepresentation of Mr. Biden’s role with BHR.”
Turning his attention to Mueller’s Russia investigation, Trump described that probe as “perfect.”
“We went through two years of Mueller, and that came out like a 10,” the president said.
Even many of Trump’s most stalwart allies, however, privately are unlikely to describe Mueller’s investigation and subsequent report as having been ideal for the president.
Though Mueller determined that current Justice Department policy prevented him from concluding whether Trump committed a crime, he did lay out possible evidence of obstruction of justice by the president in his final 448-page report and noted that “while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
Trump did, however, utter at least one thing that seemed to be unambiguous.
“I’ve been president now for almost three years, and I’ve been going through this for almost three years,” he said. “It’s almost become like a part of my day.”