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Ukraine, if you’re listening . . .: How Trump tries to quell controversies by saying the quiet part out loud

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

President Trump insisted a whistleblower who filed a complaint about Trump's communications with a foreign leader is a "partisan" on Sept. 20. (Video: Reuters)

Ukraine, if you’re listening . . .

Much as he did three years ago — when he asked Russia to hack the emails of his Democratic rival — President Trump on Friday seemed to make a similar request of Ukraine, all but urging the Eastern European nation to investigate Joe Biden, his potential Democratic opponent.

“It doesn’t matter what I discussed, but I will say this — somebody ought to look into Joe Biden,” Trump said Friday in the Oval Office, swatting away questions about whether he had improperly attempted to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on the former vice president.

It was 2016 all over again, when Trump looked directly into the camera and exhorted a geopolitical foe to steal the emails of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic rival, and release them to the public. 

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in July of that year, referring to the trove of messages that Clinton deleted from a private email server. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” 

 So yes, if Ukraine happened to be listening Friday, the president’s desired outcome could not have been more clear. 

For Trump, controversial public disclosures have became almost routine, with the president saying the potentially scandalous part aloud. It is a form of shamelessness worn as a badge of protection — on the implicit theory that the president’s alleged offenses can’t be that serious if he commits them in full public view. 

Less than a year after Trump’s public encouragement of Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and a host of congressional committees would devote months to investigating that very question — whether the president or his campaign had conspired with Russia and, later, whether Trump had tried to obstruct justice.

Yet Trump’s penchant for reading the stage directions almost seems to inoculate him from the kind of political damage that would devastate other politicians.

In the current controversy, The Washington Post first reported Wednesday that a whistleblower complaint that has spurred a showdown between the intelligence community and Congress involved a “promise” made by Trump to a foreign leader, now believed to be Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In response on Thursday, Trump tweeted a two-part defense in which he claimed that because he knows calls with foreign leaders are closely monitored, no one should be “dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially ‘heavily populated’ call.”

Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor, said Trump manages to “worm out of things” by making his bad behavior so blatant. 

“I think the normal reaction for a lot of people is that something that someone does in public, it takes away the idea that it’s nefarious,” Akerman said. “They think, ‘Would he really be doing it in public if there was something wrong with it?’ ”

But Akerman added that when Trump takes actions such as asking Russia to hack Clinton’s emails or publicly pressuring Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman, not to cooperate with prosecutors, his intent is the same — whether he acts publicly or behind closed doors.

“What he’s been saying in public is the kind of thing I used to prosecute people for doing in private,” Akerman said.

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, said Trump’s confounding public behavior — for example, she said, “he says stuff in tweets that seems blatantly illegal” — allows for two competing theories. 

“Are we giving him too much credit and he’s just so undisciplined that he can’t help but say and tweet these things?” she asked. “Or is he so diabolical that putting it out there is like a jujitsu move?”

The president has a long history of broadcasting his questionable actions and intentions to the general public. In May 2017, just two days after he fired FBI Director James B. Comey, Trump gave an interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt in which he linked Comey’s dismissal to the ongoing Russia investigation. 

“And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself — I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” the president said.

He also spent a significant portion of his presidency publicly hectoring Jeff Sessions, his former attorney general, to undo his recusal from the Russia investigation — a move that would have made it easier for Sessions to take control of the investigation and protect Trump. 

And in June — three months after Mueller submitted his 448-page report — Trump struck an unapologetic note, saying that the despite the nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference that clouded his presidency, he might still accept damaging information from a foreign adversary, such as Russia or China.

“I think you might want to listen. There’s nothing wrong with listening,” Trump told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. “If somebody called from a country, Norway — ‘We have information on your opponent’ — oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said Trump’s sheer brazenness makes him a difficult target for his critics and puts him outside the scope of previous leaders brought low by high crimes and misdemeanors. 

“There’s a striking contrast between Watergate, where secret tapes helped bring about the downfall of a president, and the Trump White House, where many of the statements that violate the norms of the presidency are made right out in public,” Nyhan said. “His opponents are routinely uncertain how to proceed, because they’ve never encountered a political opponent who so directly states what they mean even when it’s politically scandalous.”

In evaluating whether Trump’s actions constituted obstruction of justice, Mueller noted that “many of the President’s acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in public view.”

In his report, Mueller dubbed that reality “unusual.” Mueller ultimately decided to make no determination as to whether the president broke the law.

Now the president’s relationship with a foreign country is in the spotlight again, this time Ukraine. Even before the whistleblower complaint, House Democrats were investigating a July 25 call with Zelensky as part of their inquiry of whether Trump and his attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, tried to ma­nipu­la­te the Ukrainian government into helping his 2020 reelection bid. 

 Giuliani has long been trying to draw attention to Biden’s involvement, as vice president, in pressuring Ukraine to drop its top prosecutor, who was viewed as ineffective at ferreting out corruption but was also, at the time, investigating a natural-gas company on whose board Biden’s son Hunter sat. 

In a combative and disjointed interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Thursday evening, Giuliani contradicted himself in rapid succession, first saying he had never asked Ukraine to investigate Biden, before shouting that he had, in fact, pushed for such an investigation.

“Of course I did!” Giuliani said. 

On Friday, Clinton tweeted out a clip of the interview, offering a stark rejoinder of her own.

“The president asked a foreign power to help him win an election,” she wrote. “Again.” 

Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.