The release of the “transcript” (really just detailed notes, possibly incomplete) seems like yet another Rorshach moment in the Trump era. Anti-Trump partisans see major corruption; pro-Trump partisans see a nothingburger. How does the voter in the middle see it? Picture a Midwesterner who voted for Obama, then Trump, then for a Democrat for Congress last fall. Picture a person who does not spend 15 hours a day obsessing over politics. How does he see things?
I’d hate to be a Democratic member of Congress trying to convince Joe Sixpack that this is a whole new ballgame. The transcript shows Trump being Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky trying to ingratiate himself with the big dog by, for instance, mentioning that he stays at Trump hotels. Trump’s conversation is typically scattershot, wandering all over the field, leaving a reasonable listener puzzled about what the takeaways are supposed to be. If I were a major foreign leader and I had such a conversation with Trump, I’d be sure to follow it up by talking to someone with a more linear and lawyerly way of approaching matters. I’d want to talk to someone like attorney general Bill Barr, for instance. Trump in fact suggested that Zelensky talk to Barr, but the AG’s office says this followup chat never happened. Was this Trump just offering a typically James Joycean stream of consciousness as he does virtually every time he speaks, or hinting that Ukraine would face consequences if it failed to go after the Biden family? Rorshach moment.
“There’s a lot of talk about [Joe] Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump told Zelensky. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it . . . it sounds horrible to me.” Trump wound back to this with “I’m sure you will figure it out.” Biden did in fact brag that he threatened to withhold loan guarantees from Ukraine unless a prosecutor who was looking into a gas company that employed his son Hunter Biden was fired.
That appears to be the worst of it. I think Joe Sixpack’s response is going to be a hearty shrug. After all that has emerged about Trump so far, his approval rating is closely tracking Obama’s approval at the same point in his presidency. To get Mr. Sixpack’s attention you are going to have to do better than this. Maybe more information will come out that will finally doom Trump’s presidency, but I don’t think this is strong enough for the Democrats to go to the mattresses with. I agree with the perpetually even-keeled Charlie Cook of the Cook Political Report, who offers this take via Twitter: “I don’t Tweet very much but reading transcript has moved me to comment. I was totally underwhelmed by the transcript. After the build-up, it was not much more inappropriate said than we hear from him in a typical week. This will not move malleable voters.”
I still think the House will not vote to impeach the president, based on what we know now.