“So, they said he was on the phone with some guy because he wanted to get dirt on Biden, but I don’t know if they got any proof of that,” she said, taking a drag. “And it was something else, too — I don’t know. Rudy’s doing it? Rudy called?”
As the investigation heads into its second month, this is how the facts and disinformation surrounding the possible impeachment of the 45th president of the United States are seeping into the minds of voters in New York’s 11th Congressional District, a swath of the country as good a place as any to gauge how a defining moment in American democracy is playing out.
There is confusion about the details, especially as those details become ever more intricate. There is also an evolving sense of what is at stake — not so much among Democrats, whose reactions have changed little, moving from “that mofo needs to go” in the first week to “they should nail his ass” in the fourth, but among Trump supporters, whose opinions matter to Republican lawmakers who could ultimately decide the president’s fate.
“It’s all nonsense,” one of those supporters said in the first days of the inquiry.
“I’m watching it very closely,” another said last week.
The district they live in encompasses a sliver of un-gentrified Brooklyn and all of Staten Island, the “forgotten borough” of New York City that is home to many civil servants, police officers, firefighters and the Wu Tang Clan. It has an expressway that locals call the “Mason-Dixon line,” which roughly divides the more diverse, more Democratic northern crescent of the borough from the whiter, more Republican rest of it. Its voters backed Donald Trump for president in 2016 and elected to Congress in 2018 a Democratic centrist named Max Rose who has called progressives “hipster socialists” and a GOP opponent “a mouth-pisser.”
For any voter, there has been a lot to process in the inquiry — a country called Ukraine, a whistleblower, another whistleblower, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, various ambassadors, and two men named Igor and Lev. There has been real news and fake news, and all of that has been pouring through a filter of mistrust evident here since the earliest days of the investigation, when Gregory Berg said he felt like he was being dragged into something he wished to avoid.
“Look, I care about infrastructure,” he said one afternoon, ranking that as a priority far above the impeachment of a president he supports.
By then, the first crucial facts had come to light: A whistleblower alleged that President Trump had called the Ukrainian president and asked him to investigate discredited allegations about the son of Joe Biden, a potential 2020 rival. A summary of the phone call had documented this, after which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) had opened the impeachment inquiry, saying the president had “seriously violated the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, on the following Sunday, people had been out at a street fair.
“You put on the news and all you hear is impeachment,” said Linda Sagebick, whose priority remained her medical bills. “I got stitches that cost me $8,000,” she said, walking with two friends past stands selling mangoes, sunglasses and “Trump 2020: No More Bull----” hats.
“We got the problem of opioids here, and homelessness,” said Mike Rehberg, a retired firefighter.
“Things like that are much more important to us than what Donald Trump said to Ukraine,” added Brian Pritchard, a retired fire captain who did not support Trump but shared the widespread sense that whatever was about to happen would be motivated by “politics” rather than the nation’s best interests.
It was a cynicism that transcended party lines, even as Week 2 of the impeachment inquiry began.
“They’re all corrupt,” Michael Bisignano, who supports Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) in their presidential runs, said while working on his laptop at Fab Cup. “They’re all addicted to power and money, and impeachment is just taking us away from what’s really going on. Health care, global warming — people are really suffering in this country.”
By that point in the inquiry, a second whistleblower had emerged. House Democrats had subpoenaed Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, who had acknowledged that he was working on behalf of Trump to gather damaging information about Biden, Biden’s son and others. Trump had said that his call with the Ukrainian president was “perfect,” and a conspiracy theory was taking hold that the inquiry was only the latest “witch hunt” and “coup attempt” against the president.
Behind the counter at the Bagel Bin, Joe Mastrapaolo was just trying to keep up.
“To be honest, it’s overwhelming,” he said.
He’d stopped watching CNN and turned to Fox. He’d stopped watching Fox and turned to the even more pro-Trump One America News Network. He’d stopped watching OANN and started watching YouTube videos featuring psychics.
“Who do you trust anymore?” he said to a customer ordering a roast beef sandwich. “Like this week, I heard they changed the whistleblower law or something? Doesn’t the law say a whistleblower has to have firsthand knowledge of what took place?”
“I can’t remember,” said the customer, Paul Solaequi, a retired transit worker. “I’m so tired. Joe, I need a pound of coleslaw.”
Over by a rack of potato chips, a woman named Janice, a retired civil servant who did not want to give her last name, was trying to put it all together.
“So, they have this whistleblower, right?” she began. “And the whistleblower is part of the government, I dunno what agency, right? Seems like a plan to me. It doesn’t seem real. It seems like they’re doing whatever they have to do to take him down. It’s very complicated.”
She went to the counter, where sheets of notebook paper with handwritten prices of bagels, coffee and beer were taped to the Formica, and Sandra Villacampa was ringing up customers.
“You know Max Rose?” Villacampa said to one of them, referring to the congressman who had just held a town hall event. “He did that pro-impeachment speech and he’s going to pay.”
She pointed to a stack of newspapers under the counter. “Congressman criticized for impeachment inquiry decision,” the headline read.
That decision had also come during the second week of the inquiry, when Rose had faced 200 voters and declared, “The American people have a right to know if our president used the power of his office to get a foreign power to interfere in our election.” He had spent the rest of the time fielding audience questions about senior express bus fares and $18 bridge tolls, but the inquiry was still looming over the conversations.
“Maybe some of it has some validity,” said Candace Crupi, a Trump supporter.
“He’s not a perfect person,” said her friend Michele Kunz, who also supports Trump.
By the third week, as more administration officials were coming forward to say there was more to the Ukraine matter than Trump’s phone call, national polls were starting to show a slim majority of the public supporting the inquiry, including an uptick among Republican voters.
At the Bagel Bin, Joe Tompkins was not quite one of those, not yet.
He described himself as a “gay sheet-metal worker,” a disillusioned Democrat turned Trump supporter. He had read the whistleblower complaint and found its professionalism “suspicious” rather than convincing. He had watched the Democratic leader of the impeachment inquiry, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), paraphrase the complaint during a congressional hearing, and thought Schiff was “a total joke.” He had seen how Trump was reacting, and thought the president was “a total and complete buffoon” capable of anything, and all of this had left him saying, “I’d be open to it if I saw that the facts were there.”
On the front page of the newspapers under the counter, a headline read, “Stone Wall vs Dems,” and a story on page 7 was about a White House letter sent to House Democrats calling the impeachment inquiry “baseless” and “unconstitutional” and refusing to respond to congressional subpoenas. A customer buying a gallon of milk glanced at the cover.
“The cynic in me thinks it’s a witch hunt, but the realist in me thinks it was quid pro quo,” said the man, who gave his name only as Fallon, explaining that he worked in law enforcement.
He was a Libertarian-leaning Republican and was no fan of Schiff, saying, “When you rush to the podium to embarrass someone, that tells me you have other motives.”
On the other hand, he said, “I’m firmly behind the rule of law, and if they have enough proof to impeach the president, they need to move forward.”
Later, Joe Garofolo, who owns the Bagel Bin, was behind the counter, his cellphone beeping with news alerts about the latest developments.
“I try not even to listen to half of it — I get aggravated,” said Garofolo, a Democrat who was usually in the minority in his own store.
“Can I get two Advil PMs?” a customer asked.
“He should be impeached, but as long as the Republicans are in [control of] the Senate, they’re not going to go against him,” Garofolo said. “Every one of them is compromised. I think they’re all corrupt, every one of them.”
“Whatever,” said another customer.
“Whatever?!” Garofolo said. “Well, the president is not supposed to ask foreign countries to go against his opponent, that’s whatever.”
A regular named Gary came in and offered his solidarity.
“He’s walking around like he’s untouchable,” he told Garofolo. “They should nail his ass.”
And now Robert Rusello was at the counter. He was a Trump supporter who was only beginning to tune in to the news about impeachment.
But now Trump was moving on to a different subject. Syria. Turkey. U.S. troops. A different phone call with a different president.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Rusello said. “If he did something illegal with — who was it, Turkey? Or Syria?”
He paused for a moment, trying to keep it all straight.
“Ukraine,” he said. “That’s the thing. If he did something illegal, then that’s no good.”
Now it was the beginning of the fourth week. Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas had been arrested and charged with campaign finance violations, legal experts were saying the United States was descending into a constitutional crisis, Congress was on its way back to Washington to sort it all out, and that was what Richard Wickstrom was trying to do.
He was a retired system analyst and “reluctant Trump supporter” who had stopped watching Fox News and turned to CNN. He’d stopped watching CNN and turned to the BBC, and now he was following the news almost hour to hour.
“I think what he did was wrong,” Wickstrom said. “Was he criminal in it? I don’t know. I think he went overboard. Was it a treasonous thing?”
He was not sure whether the 45th president of the United States should be removed from office. But in this fourth week, he wanted to know more.
“I want to see what comes out of the woodwork,” he said.