Last year, a Nunes staffer produced a memo cherry-picking intelligence to suggest that a warrant targeting a former Trump campaign staffer was evidence of bias against the president. That memo became one spine of a push in conservative media to depict the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and potential overlap with Trump’s campaign as biased and unfounded.
To Nunes and to Trump, this is all of a piece, two prongs of an effort by anti-Trump actors to oust a duly elected president. That has become a narrative for Trump supporters, in fact: Democrats and hostile government actors — the “deep state” — working to undermine the Trump presidency, now manifested in the House impeachment inquiry. It’s the narrative that Nunes offered in his defense of Trump last week as public impeachment hearings got underway.
“After the spectacular implosion of their Russia hoax on July 24, in which they spent years denouncing any Republican who ever shook hands with a Russian,” Nunes said then, “on July 25 they turned on a dime and now claim the real malfeasance is Republicans’ dealings with Ukraine.”
All part of the same party, in other words, with the obsequious media running cover for the process.
There’s a central problem with Nunes’s argument, though. When Nunes made the comment above, there had been no public testimony in which witnesses outlined their concerns about Trump’s behavior toward Ukraine. Since then, three witnesses, experienced diplomats, have stepped forward to outline their awareness of Trump’s activity and the efforts undertaken by his allies. They spoke to text messages provided to investigators and detailed conversations documenting Trump’s focus on getting Ukraine to publicly launch an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden — a potential 2020 opponent of Trump’s — and a probe that might undermine the Russia investigation itself.
In other words, to parrot an argument used elsewhere by Trump allies, Americans need not understand the thrust of the impeachment inquiry as told secondhand by reporters. They can, instead, listen firsthand to the administration officials who are outlining what Trump and his team tried to accomplish. This, in fact, is the point of the public hearings in the eyes of Democrats. Sit witnesses down and let everyone, Democrats and Republicans, ask them questions. Let Americans see for themselves what happened.
So Nunes’s focus this week shifted. The problem isn’t so much that Democrats have been targeting Trump for three years, it’s that the media is trying and convicting Trump.
“If you watched the impeachment hearings last week, you may have noticed a disconnect between what you actually saw and the mainstream media accounts describing it,” Nunes said Tuesday. “What you saw were three diplomats, who dislike the president’s Ukraine policy, discussing secondhand and thirdhand conversations about their objections. Meanwhile, they admitted they had not talked to the president about these matters, and they were unable to identify any crime or impeachable offense the president committed.”
“But what you read in the press were accounts of shocking, damning and explosive testimony that fully supports the Democrats’ accusations,” Nunes said. He went on to detail occasions when reporting on the Russia probe was retracted or disputed by way of proving that the media cannot be trusted.
This was itself a central part of the defense of Trump on Russia. While the final report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III demonstrated that reporting on Russia’s interference efforts and the Trump campaign’s interactions were broadly accurate, the report was (incorrectly) depicted as broadly exculpatory of Trump and places where reporting wasn’t validated in the report were held up as overall failures of the media.
Nunes is trying to channel that distrust, rampant among Trump supporters, to the impeachment inquiry. He frames the witnesses as part of that “deep state” of actors seeking to undermine Trump and disparages objective coverage of their testimony as part of the media’s opposition to the president.
“With their biased misreporting on the Russia hoax, the media lost the confidence of millions of Americans,” Nunes said. “And because they refused to acknowledge how badly they botched the story, they’ve learned no lessons and simply expect Americans will believe them as they try to stoke yet another partisan frenzy.”
While disparaging the broader media as biased against Trump and error-prone, Nunes then made a remarkable pivot, demanding that an article from writer John Solomon be entered into the record. Solomon is tangentially part of the outside group working with Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to raise questions about Ukraine, and he wrote articles for The Hill that drove much of the narrative on Biden. With the emergence of questions about the administration’s interactions with Ukraine, new scrutiny has focused on Solomon’s stories — which the outlet itself had already moved to its opinion section prior to their publication. On Monday, the site’s editor in chief announced that he would be reviewing Solomon’s work, no doubt in part because some of Solomon’s reports have been shown as inaccurate.
In other words, Solomon is loosely tied to the Trump effort itself and is the source of dubious reporting — but this is who Nunes lifts up as reliable.
In part, that’s because Nunes wants the public to focus not on what witnesses have been asked about, but, instead, on a series of questions that he puts forward as the important ones. With whom did the whistleblower who first raised the alarm about the Ukraine interactions discuss their concerns? What’s the extent of “Ukraine’s election meddling” against the Trump campaign? Why did a Ukrainian energy company hire Biden’s son Hunter to sit on its board?
Those questions are easily answered. The whistleblower’s complaint has been rendered moot by subsequent firsthand testimony reinforcing the elements of the complaint. There is no significant evidence that the Ukrainian government “meddled” in the 2016 election, and any potential “meddling” is ancillary to Trump’s efforts to solicit new investigations by Ukraine. The same holds for the energy company, although Nunes’s question seems to have a direct answer: It likely hired Hunter Biden in the hopes that it might help guide the U.S. government’s treatment of the company. (Bloomberg reported last month that a Ukrainian oligarch, Dmitry Firtash, hired two attorneys to represent him in part because their son works for the Department of Justice. Those attorneys also represent Solomon.)
Nunes concluded his remarks by again suggesting that the Ukraine probe is a function of left-wing media bias and not of valid concerns by witnesses who have publicly offered their views of Trump’s actions.
“The media, of course, are free to act as Democrat puppets, and they’re free to lurch from the Russia hoax to the Ukraine hoax at the direction of their puppet masters,” Nunes said. “But they cannot reasonably expect to do so without alienating half the country who voted for the president they’re trying to expel. Americans have learned to recognize fake news when they see it, and if the mainstream press won’t give it to them straight, they’ll go elsewhere to find it — which is exactly what the American people are doing.”
This is an exhortation, not a description. Nunes is disparaging straight news reporting and encouraging Americans to go elsewhere, to read coverage that focuses not on what Trump is alleged to have done but instead on the sideboard questions that Nunes highlights.
As he accurately notes, a large part of the country already heeds that advice.