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Trump Publicly Embraces What Others Would Hide

Oct 5, 2019
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

President Trump stood on the White House lawn earlier this week and asked two foreign countries to investigate a political rival.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: China should start an investigation into the Bidens because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine. So I would say that President Zelenskiy - if it were me, I would recommend that they start an investigation into the Bidens.

SIMON: President Trump asking a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election is at the heart of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry. And as NPR's Tamara Keith reports, Trump keeps publicly embracing things that most politicians would try to hide.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: At first, President Trump or his aides deny it, but in the face of irrefutable evidence, Trump eventually goes all in. It's been a pattern throughout his presidency. Take the Trump Tower meeting where Donald Trump Jr. and others were expecting to get dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian nationals. President Trump helped draft a statement downplaying the meeting. But once emails came out showing Trump Jr. eagerly accepting the possibility of Russian help with the campaign, the president changed course.

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TRUMP: I do think this - I think from a practical standpoint, most people would have taken that meeting. It's called opposition research or even research into your opponent.

KEITH: There are other examples. For months, Trump and his spokespeople denied any knowledge of a hush money payment made by his lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen to adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Then as documents came out, Trump admitted the money came from him and said there was nothing wrong with it.

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TRUMP: And they weren't taken out of campaign finance. That's a big thing. That's a much bigger thing. Did they come out of the campaign? They didn't come out of the campaign. They came from me. And I tweeted about it. You know, I put - I don't know you know, but I tweeted about the payments.

KEITH: Michael Cohen is currently in prison serving time for, among other things, violating campaign finance law in connection with those payments. As for Ukraine, Trump initially wouldn't say whether he discussed Joe Biden on his call with President Zelenskiy.

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TRUMP: It doesn't matter what I discussed. But I will say this, somebody ought to look into Joe Biden's statement because it was disgraceful.

KEITH: But then Trump released the call transcript, which he said was perfect but even many Republicans said contained an improper effort to get Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son. And from there, he was quite open about it all.

RICK HASEN: So the question is, is it more or less of an abuse of power if it's done publicly?

KEITH: Rick Hasen is a professor specializing in election law and political science at the University of California, Irvine.

HASEN: If this is a strategy - and I have no idea if it's a conscious strategy or this is just President Trump calling another audible - if it's a conscious strategy, it's to show, look; I'm willing to say it in public, so therefore it can't be wrong because most people want to hide their wrongful conduct.

KEITH: In fact, American politics isn't really structured to deal with scandals that happen out in the open, says Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth.

BRENDAN NYHAN: It means we're actually going to have a direct debate about the propriety the president of the United States soliciting foreign interference in our elections. I never thought I would make that statement, but here we are.

KEITH: Some of Trump's defenders argue he's not really serious and is just trying to get people clutching their pearls. Nyhan says partisan divisions mean Trump hasn't faced the consequences one might expect.

NYHAN: If the partisan stands behind the statement, most of their party will stand with them, or at least that's what we've seen so far. You know, Trump is testing that.

KEITH: During the 2016 campaign, Trump famously said he could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a vote. Once again, he's putting that boast to the test. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.