With the impeachment inquiry shifting into its next big phase, President Trump’s propagandists will emit a lot of noisy outrage about the process. Trump just kicked it all off by approvingly tweeting a Fox News personality’s claim that “the process has been unfair.”
On the Sunday shows, Republicans previewed two leading arguments they’ll make in Trump’s defense as the next phase begins. This week, the House Judiciary Committee will move toward drafting articles of impeachment after the Intelligence Committee releases its own report on Trump’s corrupt efforts to extort Ukraine into announcing investigations to benefit his reelection campaign.
The first argument came from Rep. Douglas A. Collins (Ga.) on “Fox News Sunday.” Chris Wallace pushed Collins on whether he saw it as a problem that Trump conditioned official acts — whether a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid — on announcing investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden:
.@RepDougCollins's explanation for why he doesn't think Trump did anything wrong w/ Ukraine is one of the most epic word salads ever served: "There was nothing about a problematic giving aid to another country in which you're talking about corruption, which you're required to do" pic.twitter.com/UvMGpOEFEk— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) December 1, 2019
Collins claimed there was “nothing problematic” about conditioning aid on Ukraine rooting out “corruption.” He then said in the very next breath that it “just so happened” that the corruption in question involved Hunter Biden, insisting that “other witnesses” also said Hunter’s arrangement with the Ukrainian company Burisma was questionable.
As Will Saletan notes, no witness said this. But the crucial point here is that Collins has adopted the position that there was nothing wrong with demanding this investigation, because it was just pure coincidence that the corruption in question (which is entirely fabricated) involved a chief 2020 rival.
The idea that Trump was focused on generic corruption is falsifiable: Trump aides and allies have privately and publicly conceded it’s bunk, and on his call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump explicitly called only for investigations that would help him politically. Whatever Collins actually believes about Trump’s motives, what’s staring us in the face is that Collins is arguing that what Trump actually did do is just fine.
Senator Kennedy’s laughable spin
We also saw this from Sen. John Kennedy (La.), who said on NBC News: “I think both Russia and Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election.” Kennedy continued that Trump should be allowed to present evidence to this effect, in keeping with his “demonstrated record fighting foreign corruption.”
The notion that Ukraine interfered in 2016 is based on a series of occurrences (which Kennedy alluded to) that have been wildly distorted beyond any connection with reality. As Glenn Kessler details, it’s based on “flotsam and jetsam” that has nothing whatsoever in common with the state-level interference alleged.
But the point here is that Kennedy is saying not just that this interference happened but also that it justified Trump’s demand for investigations to get to the bottom of it as part of his efforts to fight “foreign corruption.”
Senate Republicans will advance this argument at Trump’s impeachment trial: Trump understandably concluded he’d been victimized by a Ukrainian plot; therefore, Trump’s demand for Zelensky to “investigate” it was entirely justified.
But they will be doing this after intelligence officials privately warned them this theory has been Russian propaganda for years. That’s because it’s supposed to help absolve Russia of sabotaging the 2016 election for Trump (which will also absolve his campaign of efforts to coordinate with and benefit from it).
Indeed, this is what gives the theory its political utility for Trump. Here again, the argument requires you to believe this demand for an investigation into “corruption” would also help him politically by pure coincidence.
But putting aside how laughable that is, we’re once again left with this: Republicans are arguing that Trump’s pressure on Zelensky was absolutely fine.
The actual GOP position
On both these fronts, Republicans are entirely unperturbed by Trump’s use of his office to solicit foreign interference in the next election on his behalf. They absurdly claim influencing the election wasn’t the motive, but that actually underscores the point: They have largely adopted the posture that making these demands of Zelensky was justified — that it was the correct thing to do.
In an alternate universe in which reporters and commentators fully reckoned with this state of affairs, any process objections would be immediately dismissed as pure bad faith and misdirection rather than being treated as one of two competing but equivalently legitimate and sincerely felt arguments in a conventional political skirmish.
One can envision some Republicans sincerely believing Trump’s conduct was justifiable while also harboring sincere process objections. But accepting this requires extensive denial about the spectacular bad faith we’ve already seen, from the up-is-down inversion of witness claims into their diametric opposites, to the reflexive reversion to conspiracy theories hermetically sealed off from factual penetration entirely.
Indeed, as Jay Rosen notes, the familiar lament that the two sides can’t agree on common facts is itself distortive. It obscures the degree to which Republicans are employing their various claims — about process and substance alike — in purely instrumental ways.
The New York Times gets at this bluntly:
Republicans … want to mire Democrats in a sloppy fight, making the hearings into such a confusing mishmash of competing information that even Republicans troubled by Mr. Trump’s actions see no upside in breaking with him.
Republicans have made up their minds: Trump did no wrong. The process objections lay the groundwork to create the impression that if few or no Republican minds end up getting changed, it’s because the case against Trump was mishandled and not because changing Republican minds was never possible.
No one who aspires to the faithful representation of these events is required to pretend otherwise.