This morning, just as the second day of the House impeachment hearings began, the White House released a readout of an April phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. The call was brief and consumed by pleasantries. Trump has argued that this first, innocuous call proves that he did not spend the next several months pressuring Ukraine to investigate Trump’s domestic rivals.
Trump is citing a principle of diplomacy which holds that the first call between heads of state is the most important, and every subsequent communication has less significance. In case you haven’t heard of that principle, it’s because Trump just made it up.
More important, Trump is missing a key dynamic about crimes. The way crime works in general is that you don’t have to be committing them all the time in order to be prosecuted. Just committing a crime once is enough. Trump’s argument is exactly like releasing surveillance video of a bank he visited and did not rob several months before another surveillance video showed him robbing a bank.
After the phone call, the White House released a readout claiming Trump “expressed his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelensky and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.” Perhaps that’s what Trump was told to say, but the readout shows he did not say that, instead rambling about his enjoyment of Ukrainan food and fond memories of having run a Miss America pageant. So the brief call he’s touting shows that he failed to achieve even the very modest task he was apparently assigned. But — no crimes!
Representative Devin Nunes, one of Trump’s most energetic defenders, devoted a large segment of his opening statement to reading the entire call out loud, a testament to the importance Republicans somehow place in this document. It does prove that Trump is capable of interacting with a foreign leader without committing an impeachable offense. It’s the other interactions, the ones that do contain impeachable offenses, that are the problem.