Some defenders have flatly inverted what was actually testified to into its diametrical opposite. Others have reflexively reverted to conspiracy theories creating a universe as divorced from the actual corrupt conduct now being examined as one former half of a divided cell is from the other.
It’s now clear that the coming Senate trial will also be conducted in this manner. Reports tell us Republicans are divided over whether to have a drawn out trial that offers a genuine “defense of his conduct,” as if a protracted one will see Trump’s extensive misconduct evaluated and defended on its merits.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, a top Trump loyalist, has just demanded that the State Department turn over extensive documents to help “prove” the theory that the Ukraine activities of Joe Biden and his son Hunter were corrupt.
That invented narrative has already been thoroughly debunked. But what really matters here is that this is the very same theory Trump set out to “prove” with his corrupt pressure on Ukraine in the first place.
Trump and his defenders simply will not leave that goal behind — precisely because Trump continues to view it as central to his reelection chances.
We know what happened here. Trump corruptly tried to extort a foreign ally at a moment of extreme vulnerability into announcing investigations that would boost his reelection chances.
These announcements would then influence domestic press coverage, validating Trump’s efforts to absolve Russia of its role in sabotaging the 2016 election — and his campaign’s coordination with it — and helping smear a potential 2020 campaign opponent.
We know Trump made these demands of the Ukrainian president. We know top Cabinet officials and top White House advisers were involved to one degree or another, and that this put large swaths of the government at the disposal both of Trump’s reelection effort and of the effort to cover it all up.
We know Trump conditioned one official act (a White House meeting) on getting his dirty deeds done. We know a top ringleader told Ukraine that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were conditioned on the same, in the full understanding that Trump wanted him to. Trump solicited a bribe.
So this Senate trial will be heavily preoccupied not with examining that conduct, but instead with … continuing to accomplish some of the very same goals (smearing Joe Biden) that drove the whole corrupt scheme all along. The Senate trial will continue using the levers of government to realize those goals, simply continuing where that scheme left off.
Much excellent work has developed the idea that all this goes much further than conventional political misrepresentation and pushes into a realm of disinformation hermetically sealed off from facts altogether.
This lockstep backing has many motives. Some defenders are all in with the project of “disinforming” millions of Trump voters (see David Frum). Others are fine with Trump soliciting foreign interference because the whole party benefits (see Brian Beutler). Others don’t acknowledge an ethical framework that allows for Trump to be wrong, because their highest loyalty is to him (see Adam Serwer).
But a full acknowledgment of all this requires a fundamental change in the way we’ve been communicating about it.
Time for a reset
It’s time to drop the posture that Trump’s defenders can be shamed into accepting what has been unearthed, or that they can be shamed into arguing from a baseline of shared democratic values, or into arguing over how to interpret a comprehensive set of shared facts.
Instead, let’s rhetorically treat Trump’s defenders as his criminal accomplices. Not just as “enablers” of Trump’s corruption but as active participants in it.
Once this is accepted, it becomes obvious why they can’t be “won over,” because they are actively engaged in keeping the corruption in question from getting fully uncovered, in the belief that they, too, benefit from it, and that they, too, lose out if it’s exposed.
The notion that Trump’s defenders can be shamed into facing up to what has happened here is all-pervasive. It includes the have-you-no-shame lectures delivered to Republicans who smeared Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman for supposed dual loyalties.
It includes the oft-expressed idea that Republicans downplaying the evidence are doing so because they fear Trump’s base, as if they would embrace evidence if only they could, as if the problem is missing “courage” and not a more corrupt form of calculated self-interest.
And it includes anguished objections that Attorney General William P. Barr has “politicized” the Justice Department in a way that brings opprobrium upon it.
Meanwhile, on Fox News, Trump just boasted that Barr’s “review” of the origins of the Russia investigation will show a huge “scandal,” that is, show that he was right all along. We’ll soon see about that, but it’s plainly obvious that Barr and those allied with him in this project cannot be shamed into playing this one by facts.
Instead, Barr is using the Justice Department to accomplish precisely the same rewriting of 2016 that drove Trump’s corrupt scheme in the first place — putting Trump’s reelection needs over the findings of our own intelligence services.
The point here isn’t that describing Trump’s defenders in these ways has no truth or utility at all. Surely some might actually feel cowed by Trump voters or feel secret shame in smearing Vindman. Surely shaming smears has worth.
Rather, the point is we need a much more fundamental change in our underlying treatment of the moment. We need to approach it from the premise that Trump’s defenders are not “gettable” because they are accomplices in the whole scheme -- and forthrightly describe what’s happening in kind.