Politically, this might be a good idea. Diplomatically … not so much. After Democrats demanded to see the transcript of his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Donald Trump told reporters he might accommodate them — if only to prove that the call was “perfect.”
However, Trump also said that there are good reasons to be “shy” about such releases:
“We’ll make a determination about how to release it, releasing it, saying what we said,” Trump said in Houston, defending his conversation with Zelensky as “perfect.” His remarks came hours after the president suggested that he had discussed Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden during the call.
“The problem is, when you’re speaking to foreign leaders, you don’t want foreign leaders to feel that they shouldn’t be speaking openly,” Trump added. “And the same thing with an American president. You want them to be able to express themselves without knowing that every single word was going to be going out and going out all over the world.”
Trump reiterated that he would “talk” about releasing details from the call, adding, “But you have to be a little bit shy about doing that.” Trump went on to say he knows a lot of people are listening to his phone calls, including “intelligence people,” but that he gives them permission to do so.
The reasons to keep transcripts classified should be obvious. Heads of foreign governments would be less likely to talk frankly with American presidents if they knew or suspected that word-for-word transcripts would soon be released, regardless of the circumstances. It would make the presidency less effective diplomatically and require less direct routes for resolving issues and conducting strategy.
Sometimes politics outweighs those issues, however, and this may be one of those times. One intermediate step would be to release the transcript first to the Gang of Eight in Congress to see whether that would satisfy leadership that no lines were crossed. That at least would keep the Trump-Zelensky conversation private for a period of time. If this turns out to be the “perfect” nothingburger that Trump claims, that might be enough for Democrats to drop the issue.
If Trump did mention Biden and an investigation, however, it probably won’t be sufficient. And Trump’s remarks seem to indicate that Biden’s name came up, although Trump tried walking it back later:
“The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine,” Trump told reporters Sunday morning. “And Ukraine, Ukraine’s got a lot of problems.”
Later in Houston, Trump appeared to backtrack, saying, “I don’t even want to mention it, but certainly I’d have the right to” raise Biden’s name with Zelensky. He also said he would “love” to release a transcript, though he added he would have to make a determination about how to do so.
The problem with the Gang of Eight approach is that any nuance leaves risk of selective leaking and out-of-context quotes. The only way this option works is if the transcript is truly pristine. If not, Trump would be better advised to release the transcript in full, publicly, to get the full context out all at once. Otherwise, this will be a death by a thousand cuts, even if they only add up to a pinprick in the end. The only other release option, giving the transcript to the intel committees in closed session, practically guarantees rampant politicization of the material, especially in the House.
Of course, Trump could just decide not to release the transcripts at all, but at this point that seems unrealistic. Someone in the intel community has already set wheels in motion for a review, and Trump knows they have the transcript. If Trump doesn’t act, the transcript — or selected parts of it — will get into Adam Schiff’s hands sooner or later. The choice isn’t really whether or not to release the transcript now, but in controlling the release and choosing the audience.
At that point, we can all determine whether Trump acted perfectly with Zelensky or stepped over the line, and whether he did anything worse than Biden did in 2016 in a very similar circumstance. And at this point, we may as well wait for the inevitable before assuming either position.