September 25, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

With Smoking Gun Memo, What Was Trump Thinking?

The president believes his own lies.

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The White House released Wednesday a memo of the July 25 call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That call is at the heart of the whistleblower complaint and the Democrats’ imminent impeachment proceedings. The memo, which is not a transcript, was also expected to be a snow job akin to the US attorney general’s letter to the Congress “summarizing” the Mueller Report. 

It was anything but. 

In it, the president asks Zelensky to work with William Barr to investigate Joe Biden. Trump said he would meet Zelensky if he promised to launch an inquiry. Trump appears addled by a conspiracy theory, too. The Post: Trump “seems to suggest Hillary Clinton’s private email server is in Ukraine and asserts that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation started with that country. He repeatedly says Zelensky should work with Attorney General William P. Barr or his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Giuliani had separately pressed Ukrainian officials for a Biden inquiry.”

It’s all right there.

Violation of campaign finance law (contributions not limited to money from foreigners). Collusion as well as quid pro quo (I’ll do this if you do that). These two times two (he wants a Biden inquiry but also dirt on the Democrats from Clinton’s server.) Not to mention a suite of moral wrongs, including the violation of his oath to defend and protect the Constitution. Nancy Pelosi was right: “The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.”

It’s all right there.

Today’s revelations were so very stunning that at least one prominent commentator who had been convinced that the Senate Republicans would acquit the president no matter what had second thoughts. Michael Cohen is a columnist for the Boston Globe. Today, he said: “I can’t believe I’m going to say this but after reading this transcript I’m not sure how confident anyone should be that Trump would survive a Senate trial.”

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.

After all, this is a memo, not a transcript. We also haven’t seen the whistleblower complaint, nor have we heard from the whistleblower (that person is expected to speak soon with lawmakers in the House and Senate). There’s still a lot to sort through. We have not yet seen the right-wing media’s response. And as veteran Washington watchers are wont to say, things are probably going to get much worse. Still, given how bad this one document is, it’s worth asking: what the hell was the president thinking?

What was he thinking when he authorized the release this memo after Pelosi said her caucus would launch an impeachment inquiry? He couldn’t even wait for the speaker finish before tweeting: “You will see it was a very friendly and totally appropriate call. No pressure and, unlike Joe Biden and his son, NO quid pro quo! This is nothing more than a continuation of the Greatest and most Destructive Witch Hunt of all time!”

I have a couple of theories. 

One, Trump doesn’t care what the memo actually says, because what it actually says would not stop him from trying to convince you of what he wants you to believe it says. The whole truth, in other words, is not empirically independent of human consciousness. The truth is whatever he says it is. My bet is that Trump believes he can manipulate the press corps into reporting whatever he says the memo says, and, with enough repetition by the Republican Party, he can get his “truth” to stick.

Editor’s note

Today’s edition of the Editorial Board is free and open to the public. Please forward this message to your friends and family, and tell them how awesome it is! —JS

Remember what I told you about the Sharpie? When Trump drew a black semi-circle on a weather map to show Hurricane Dorian’s impact on Alabama? Some said it was a sign of mental illness. No, it was a symbol illustrating everything about Trumpism. I wrote: “Being wrong, or being right for that matter, is immaterial when the authoritarian’s objective is getting you to accept what he says as the only truth. Moreover, the more ridiculous his statements—like using a Sharpie on a weather map to “prove” he was right—the more pleasure he’ll derive from its ultimate acceptance.”

That’s one theory. The other theory as to why Trump released a smoking gun is that he believes the US Department of Justice’s conclusion that there was nothing illegal or improper about asking a foreigner leader to investigate a political rival. Again, the Post: “Career prosecutors and officials in the Justice Department’s criminal division then reviewed the transcript of the call … and determined the facts ‘could not make out and cannot make out’ the appropriate basis for an investigation.” The italics are mine to suggest Barr’s hand in the process of determining that something illegal wasn’t. 

Barr, of course, has done just about everything an attorney general can do to shield an executive from legal accountability. (He is now entangled legally in much the way Rudy Giuliani now is.) The delicious irony, if my theory is correct, is that in telling the president that there was nothing illegal or improper about asking a foreign leader to investigate a political rival, Trump ended up releasing the document showing everyone what he’d done. More ironic, again delicious if my theory is correct, is that the man who believes he can create truth by speaking is exposed for believing his own lies.

Which is all the more reason, I think, for the Democrats to proceed with their impeachment inquiry. A liberal democracy should not, indeed cannot, tolerate for long an authoritarian executive who can’t discern fact from fiction in normal times, much less during the perpetration of treason and other high crimes in broad daylight.

—John Stoehr

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.


  1. abbyinsm on July 30, 2021 at 7:54 am

    The WaPo analysis boils down to “no quid pro quo, no smoking gun.” This gives Republicans the out they need.

  2. Thornton Prayer on July 30, 2021 at 7:54 am

    I have a third theory and that is he is extremely impulsive. He makes snap decisions without any analysis or consideration. That’s why he has a massive trail of business failures. If you read the commentary of people who worked for him in the 1980’s-90’s, on the Apprentice, and in the White House, you will see a consistent thread of him making rash decisions with other people reeling him back in or trying to do so before something catastrophic happened. I wouldn’t be surprised if, given the other two decision points, he just thought “I spoke with Zelensky, here’s what I said. What’s the big deal?”.

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