Case in point: Trump is now openly calling for his impeachment trial to be converted into something that is purely devoted to serving his own political needs — one that only includes witnesses that will help him keep smearing potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden, but have no meaningful relevance whatsoever to the corrupt conduct for which he has been impeached.
Incredibly, this comes as Senate Republicans push for a trial that features none of the witnesses who actually do have direct knowledge of that very same corrupt conduct.
Trump just made all this very explicit:
The Democrats will do anything to avoid a trial in the Senate in order to protect Sleepy Joe Biden, and expose the millions and millions of dollars that “Where’s” Hunter, & possibly Joe, were paid by companies and countries for doing NOTHING. Joe wants no part of this mess!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2019
Trump is again suggesting he wants Biden to testify — he has repeatedly called for testimony from Biden and his son Hunter — and claiming Democrats don’t want a trial because they fear this outcome.
This is utter nonsense: House Democrats have not sent the impeachment articles to the Senate because they first want to see what sort of procedure Trump and his GOP enablers will accept.
The ones who actually fear witnesses are Senate GOP leaders, who are refusing Democratic demands for testimony from those with the most direct knowledge of Trump’s freezing of military aid to extort Ukraine into announcing an investigation of the Bidens. They are doing this to protect Trump — and themselves — because he’s guilty as charged, and they know it.
Trump’s disinformation campaign
Let’s reiterate that Trump’s deeper claim — about the Bidens’ alleged corruption in Ukraine — has been widely debunked. This narrative holds that as vice president, Biden pushed for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor to protect Hunter — who got a lucrative contract to join Ukrainian company Burisma’s board — and withheld loan guarantees as leverage.
Here are the facts: The campaign to oust that prosecutor constituted an effort to root out corruption in Ukraine — that prosecutor was turning a blind eye to it. The push was U.S. policy widely backed by international institutions, which were also behind using loan guarantees as leverage. There was an investigation into Burisma, but Hunter Biden’s role was irrelevant to that, and it was dormant by the time of Joe Biden’s effort.
It’s fair to say Hunter Biden shouldn’t have joined Burisma. Obama administration officials worried it created the appearance that he was milking proximity to his father and selling influence over Ukraine policy. Joe Biden probably shouldn’t have allowed this — though it’s unclear what control he had over Hunter Biden — and it has created an aura of vague sleaze that Trump is exploiting.
But what’s not in dispute is what Joe Biden himself did in Ukraine, which is at the core of Trump’s false narrative.
A perverse irony
Indeed, there’s a deep irony here: Biden actually did work for years to root out kleptocracy and corruption in Ukraine, explicitly describing this as essential to drawing it into the Western orbit, and away from Russian predation, serving our national interests.
By contrast, Trump actually does not care a whit about corruption in Ukraine. He used it as his cover story for extorting the Ukrainian president to help him advance his own kleptocratic and corrupt designs, subverting our national interests to his own.
Perversely, Trump has been weaponizing his fake concern about Ukrainian corruption to pressure Ukraine into helping him magically transform Biden’s actual efforts against Ukrainian corruption into the only “real” corruption in this whole saga. It’s pure disinformation warfare.
Let’s be clear: This is exactly what Trump wants his impeachment trial to keep on doing. It isn’t just that Trump is unrepentant about extorting a foreign power to smear a domestic rival to cheat through the next U.S. election. It’s that he wants his trial to pick up that same mission where his aborted plot left off.
Trump’s backup plan depends on media failure
Now, Trump might not get his way. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is privately warning against having any witnesses, fearing an unpredictable circus. Trump has confided that he gets McConnell’s argument.
It’s unclear whether McConnell will pull that off, since he needs 51 GOP senators, and vulnerable ones might balk. But he might.
If so, here’s a possible game plan. Trump is calling for testimony from the Bidens to lay the groundwork for an endgame in which no witnesses testify. Trump’s propaganda network will then push the narrative that not hearing from witnesses Democrats want is fair and balanced retribution, given that we’re not hearing from the Bidens, either.
As Jonathan Chait notes, the incentives driving our media discourage them from adequately grappling with the most spectacular absurdity hiding in plain sight: The idea that Biden is vulnerable to charges of self-dealing and nepotism, when Trump’s presidency has instituted both of those on such a monumental scale that our system is literally incapable of dealing with them. Coverage focused on Biden’s “vulnerabilities” obscures this absurdity from view.
Similarly, the endgame I’m envisioning banks on media coverage that fails to capture the utter absurdity of Trump’s trial demands. Not hearing from witnesses with direct knowledge of Trump’s extortion scheme will be placed on a plane of equivalence with not hearing from the Bidens. It’s all just Washington tit-for-tat!
This, even though Trump’s demand is based on a purely fabricated narrative of invented conduct that is utterly irrelevant to the corrupt conduct for which Trump is being tried — conduct that actually did happen.
Update: Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates responds to Trump’s tweet:
It makes sense that Donald Trump is going into 2020 bawling like he’s about to get fired. He was caught red-handed committing an unprecedented offense that no American president -- not even Richard Nixon -- stooped to: undermining our national security by trying to force a foreign country to lie about the political opponent he fears the most. He’s also literally the most corrupt president in the history of our country, and as the Vice President has said, he should finally stop breaking his promise to release his tax returns or shut up.