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Opinion Trump’s awful new ‘transcript’ tweets demonstrate how his propaganda works

(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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President Trump is now openly calling on his Republican allies to produce doctored transcripts of witness testimony that will exonerate him.

Trump did not put it quite that directly, of course. But given all the known facts — and given everything we’ve seen from Trump over the past few years — there is simply no other way to read them.

It’s hard to imagine that even Trump’s GOP allies would attempt something so spectacularly absurd, and if they did, it’s even harder to imagine it would be successful.

But this episode nonetheless provides an occasion to deconstruct one of the most insidious lines of propaganda coming from Trump’s Republican loyalists right now — and, more broadly, to look at how this kind of bad-faith deception is supposed to function.

Trump tweeted this:

This is a straight-up command to Republicans that they produce transcripts that vindicate him. What would that look like? We know the answer to this because Republicans have already told it to us.

What Republicans are saying about transcripts

For weeks, numerous Republicans have claimed that the publicly confirmed and very damning revelations about Trump’s corruption aren’t actually damning, because behind closed doors, the witnesses’ stories have fallen apart.

Republicans tried this trick to discredit Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr.’s devastating testimony. Taylor portrayed a situation in which Trump used hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded military aid to extort Ukraine into launching sham “investigations” designed to absolve Russia of sabotaging the 2016 election and to smear potential opponent Joe Biden before 2020.

After that, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a slavish Trump lickspittle, called for the release of the transcript of Taylor’s testimony, claiming: “Much of his leaked opening statement collapsed, but Schiff keeps the public in the dark on that!”

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Zeldin then broadened his case. “The public is absolutely being misled about every single deposition that takes place,” Zeldin told the Washington Examiner.

This would have to include Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified he was deeply alarmed by Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to smear Biden, and White House adviser Tim Morrison, who confirmed that the quid pro quo involving the military aid did take place.

Another Republican, Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah, claimed it’s “extraordinarily frustrating” that he cannot yet share the closed-door details supposedly showing that witness testimony has been debunked.

This line has also been pushed by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio). Here’s how the New York Times reported on that:

Mr. Schiff has an “absolute maniacal focus on Donald Trump” said one committee Republican, Representative Michael Turner of Ohio, who accused Mr. Schiff of routinely lying to the press and the public about what happened in private interviews, and conducting the inquiry’s initial hearings out of public view so he and other Democrats could distort the findings.

Let’s point out how ridiculous this whole line really is. First, much of the “leaked” testimony actually consisted of complete opening statements documented in black-letter text.

For all these witnesses, we have their testimony in their own words, not selectively leaked, but rendered as fully as they wished to render it. So we’re supposed to believe that under withering cross-examination from Republicans, these witnesses’ accounts were unmasked as unreliable or baselessly sourced.

This is verifiably absurd. Taylor texted his concerns contemporaneously. His allegation of a quid pro quo was confirmed by Morrison, who got it firsthand from Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a ringleader of Trump’s scheme. Vindman’s recounting of the call is confirmed by the White House’s own summary.

Yes, we know about some revelations from Vindman — such as the assertion that a White House lawyer stashed the call on a top-secret server right after Vindman raised alarms — from leaks, not his opening statement. But the White House itself has acknowledged that the call was buried in precisely that manner.

The bottom line is that the most damning revelations have for the most part already been confirmed in a manner that renders it logically impossible to see how cross-examination might debunk them. Republicans are all but certainly lying when they say the transcripts will show that the case against Trump has been sliced apart by their lacerating Clarence Darrow-like questioning.

But more to the point, we will soon very likely know this to be the case. The transcripts are going to get released.

That’s why Trump is now claiming Schiff doctored the transcripts, and calling on Republicans to release the “real” ones. But this, too, is monumentally ridiculous on its face. Many witnesses will testify in the open hearings phase. If Schiff doctored transcripts, they could simply say so publicly.

Indeed, we are going to hear all these revelations directly from them. If GOP cross-examination is really capable of reducing them to puddles of incoherence, Republicans will be able to show us so. Hint: That won’t happen.

Fear-driven Republicans have been enablers of President Trump with their silence, argues Post columnist George F. Will. (Video: The Washington Post)

How this propaganda works

So this is a nonsensical demand by Trump. In reality, Trump — who has a well-documented history of manipulating government resources to prop up his lies — is calling on Republicans to create fake versions of what happened.

But here’s the really important point: Trump and Republicans know they can right now inject the claim into the discussion that the revelations were secretly debunked, because the media coverage won’t return to this, once the transcripts show what nonsense it is. Note how the Times simply allowed Turner to float that claim, without pointing out its core absurdities.

Indeed, Trump and Republicans also know that once the transcripts are released, they can simply change the subject by lying about what they actually do show. They’ll do this knowing that their propaganda network will amplify those lies, and that all-too-many mainstream outlets will launder them by treating them as merely one side in a legitimate good-faith dispute over the transcripts’ content and meaning.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The smear of Alexander Vindman is a preview of what’s to come

Greg Sargent: Tim Morrison just confirmed the quid pro quo. That’s the big story here.

Max Boot: The only ‘Soviet-style’ impeachment behavior is coming from Trump and his commissars

Michael McFaul: Alexander Vindman should be celebrated, not smeared

David Ignatius: In Ukraine, the quid pro quo may have started long before the phone call