There was a time when Republicans could hold a weekly meeting to coordinate their message and be assured that it would be dutifully disseminated by everyone on their side. That’s not how it works anymore. As the media landscape expanded, it became more diffuse and chaotic, with many more entry points for entrepreneurial people — including extremists and cranks — to seize control of the conversation.
Trump is both a product and a shaper of the new environment, because he is plugged in to every aspect of the conservative communication landscape. He watches hours of Fox News every day, and he also follows some of the loonier corners of the right-wing Internet, picking up and then amplifying their conspiracy theories and general outlook on the world.
So here’s what happened with Vindman. On Monday evening, the New York Times was first to report that Vindman would be testifying that he was among the officials listening to Trump’s call in which he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to manufacture smears of former vice president Joe Biden, and he was so troubled that he informed a National Security Council lawyer about it.
What ensued was an immediate effort to insinuate that Vindman — a decorated 20-year Army officer who immigrated from Ukraine at the age of 3 with his family — is insufficiently loyal to the United States.
The Times article included this line, which would become critical:
Because he emigrated from Ukraine along with his family when he was a child and is fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, Ukrainian officials sought advice from him about how to deal with Mr. Giuliani, though they typically communicated in English.
Vindman’s job in the White House was to work on policy toward Russia and Ukraine (for which his language skills are extremely valuable). Since Ukraine is a U.S. ally, communicating with its government was presumably a key part of his work. And it’s not surprising that the Ukrainian government would reach out to our government to ask what the heck it should do about Rudy Giuliani, who was running his own shadow foreign policy in order to help Trump’s reelection campaign.
Yet conservatives would seize on the phrase “sought advice” to imply not just that Vindman was doing something inappropriate but that he might be some kind of traitor or double agent.
Here’s what happened next:
- Monday, 10 p.m.: On Fox News, Laura Ingraham reads the line from the Times in a flabbergasted tone: “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest, and usually they spoke in English!” Former Bush administration official and torture advocate John Yoo replies, “Some people might call that espionage.”
- Tuesday, 6 a.m.: On “Fox & Friends,” co-host Brian Kilmeade describes Vindman this way: “He’s from the Soviet Union, he emigrated here and has an affinity to the Ukrainian people. … He tends to feel simpatico with the Ukraine.” Kilmeade does not explain how he has any idea what Vindman “tends to feel.”
- Tuesday, 7:46 a.m.: Former Republican congressman Sean Duffy says, “It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mission was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons. I understand it, we all have an affinity to our homeland where we came from.” Duffy, too, does not explain how he knows what Vindman is and isn’t “concerned” about.
- Tuesday, 9:09 a.m.: President Trump refers to Vindman as a “Never Trumper,” a term used for Republicans who actively oppose Trump. There is no evidence anywhere of Vindman’s party identification or his feelings about the president.
- Tuesday, 9:41 a.m.: Right-wing conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec tweets to his half-million followers, “BREAKING: US Army Officer Alex Vindman has reportedly been advising the Ukrainian government, his home country, how to counter President Trump’s foreign policy goals.” That sets off a wave of activity on social media from right-wing extremists attacking Vindman and implying he was working against U.S interests.
- Tuesday, 2:49 p.m.: Giuliani tweets, “ANOTHER SCHIFFTY BACKFIRE: A US gov. employee who has reportedly been advising two gov’s?”
The attempt to smear Vindman as some kind of double agent was met with a backlash, including from some conservative Republicans in Congress such as Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). That shut down the narrative the president’s supporters had been trying to build about Vindman, at least for the most part.
Nevertheless, this putrid episode gives us a preview of how the impeachment controversy will play out. Every new witness whose testimony does not reflect well on Trump will be met with an attempt to smear them, using whatever crumbs of information people on the right can find. The president himself will hear it all and amplify the slanders he thinks will most help his cause.
And the worse things get for him, the more desperate he and his supporters will become, and the more they will lash out. Some Republicans will be making plausible or at least halfway reasonable arguments in his defense, but behind them will be a calliope of craziness pumping out a constant stream of disinformation and conspiracy theories, with the goal of getting their claims into the mainstream media. The madness has only begun.