Yet polling released Wednesday by Pew Research Center shows that most members of his own party see him as more trustworthy than past presidents, not less.
How are those two things reconcilable? In part because Trump’s gone out of his way to cast news outlets like The Post as untrustworthy, allowing his followers to wave away our tally. In part, Trump’s seen as being truthful in the abstract, a function of his willingness to say things that other politicians won’t because they’re offensive, divisive or false. Trump isn’t bound by similar restrictions, and so he is seen by some as more honest — if not to reality than at least to himself. Trump rose to prominence in the 2016 field in part by saying what conservative media was saying, making him seem more honest to consumers of that media, even if there were robust reasons (such as inaccuracy) for political leaders to avoid those comments.
This is still the world in which Trump operates, as our 16,000-plus figure can attest. Trump’s firmly committed to presenting his view of the world to America, particularly as a handful of House Democrats stand in the well of the Senate and outline arguments in support of his impeachment and removal from office. As the Democrats began their unilateral presentation of that case Wednesday, Trump’s social media allies did the heavy lifting of rebutting those arguments to the broader world.
Take, for example, the Trump War Room account, an arm of Trump’s reelection campaign that assumes the tone of a rambunctious, fervent supporter of the president. The social media tone of Donald Trump Jr., really. It’s heavy on memes and direct about its typically desired outcome: respond to challenging information or political opponents with distracting, engaging tidbits.
On Wednesday, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) spoke about Trump’s interactions with Ukraine, the War Room account offered its rebuttals.
Let’s walk through them. We’ve left off the “FACT” phrasing, which preceded each tweet for the simple reason that the statements often weren’t facts at all.
“Ukraine received aid without announcing any investigations. The standard, temporary hold was lifted in September.” Democrats allege that Trump pressured Ukraine and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations that would politically benefit Trump. To do so, Democrats argue, he declined to finalize a White House meeting that Zelensky desired and placed a hold on military and security aid to the country that lasted from early July to mid-September.
It is true that much of the aid was provided to Ukraine without the announced investigations. It’s also true that the aid was released only after public attention had been drawn to the hold and only after it had been alleged that Trump was holding the aid to try to force Ukraine to launch the investigations. It is not a defense against kidnapping charges to say that you released your prisoner before you got the ransom.
As witnesses during the impeachment inquiry testified, this was also not a “standard” hold. Mark Sandy, the official with the Office of Management and Budget charged with implementing the hold, testified that it was unusual in his lengthy experience.
“Ukraine has been clear there was no pressure for them to do anything.” Various Ukrainian officials have, indeed, said that they weren’t pressured by Trump, though Zelensky himself did so only somewhat grudgingly when he and Trump first met at a United Nations event in September. The War Room tweet quotes the tail end of his comments then, but not his earlier effort to deflect the question.
David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, explained in his testimony why Ukraine would both have understood the pressure they were under — and not wanted to cross Trump by saying so publicly.
“Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren’t getting, including a meeting with the president in the Oval Office,” Holmes said. “Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president. So I think that continues to this day. I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
“Ukraine said the aid was not linked to anything.” The tweet goes on to quote Ukraine’s foreign minister saying that he wasn’t told about a “direct” link between aid and investigations.
While there are reasons to deny such a link in the abstract, as above, there was repeated testimony from administration officials that official acts were, in fact, linked to the investigations. U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that he told an adviser to Zelensky that aid was linked to investigations. Sondland and others testified about links being drawn between probes and the White House meeting.
“President Zelensky confirmed he did not know aid was being withheld at the time of the call.” That may well be the case. But on the day that Trump and Zelensky spoke, July 25, officials at the Defense Department received emails suggesting that Ukrainian officials were already aware of a hold that had been announced within the administration only a week earlier. A former deputy foreign minister in Zelensky’s administration reported knowing about the hold by July 30.
In his testimony, Holmes noted that it wouldn’t be hard for Ukraine to draw a conclusion about why the aid was withheld. They’d been informed repeatedly that announcements about investigations were desired and had seen requests for a White House meeting go unfulfilled. Not hard to come to the conclusion that the aid, too, was being withheld for a specific intent.
“President Trump made clear he wanted nothing from Ukraine. The only witness who had actually spoken with President Trump about Ukraine stated he wanted no quid pro quo.” This War Room tweet is referring to a (mysterious) conversation between Trump and Sondland in which Trump volunteered that there was no quid pro quo at play in his withholding aid. That conversation, though, came after public attention already was being paid to the hold — and after Trump had been briefed on a whistleblower complaint in which the hold was tied to Trump’s desired investigations.
It’s a bit unfair to celebrate as exculpatory one contemporaneous denial by Trump himself — after he already knew he had a problem — while setting aside as irrelevant all of the rest of the evidence from the time period.
“Ukraine has a long history of corruption confirmed by the testimony of multiple officials. President Trump wanted to confirm US aid would not be used corruptly.” The former sentence is true. Numerous witnesses articulated concern about corruption in Ukraine.
But there’s little evidence from the period in which the aid was being held that Trump was holding the aid out of concern for corruption. Trump only rarely spoke about corruption publicly, and those comments were usually in context of disparaging his political opponents. He seems to have used “corruption” broadly as a way to cudgel Ukraine, more than he was skeptical of Ukraine as a function of his concern about corruption.
Given the chance to raise corruption with Zelensky after he first won his election in April, Trump didn’t raise the subject (although a readout of the call published by the White House said the subject had come up). Speaking to Zelensky in July, Trump again never mentioned corruption, instead only mentioning his desire for an investigation specifically looking at former vice president Joe Biden, by then a leading contender to face Trump in this year’s presidential election.
“Holds on foreign aid are commonplace.” True but, as noted above, this was not a commonplace hold.
“The aid flowed to Ukraine on time. Ukraine received its aid on time after the Administration conducted a review of corruption in Ukraine and Zelensky’s commitment to combatting it.” Trump himself has repeatedly argued that the aid got to Ukraine “on time.” In fact, much of the aid didn’t get to Ukraine by Sept. 30, as mandated by law.
But it’s that second line that’s more brazen. There’s no evidence at all that the administration “conducted a review of corruption in Ukraine” — save for the legally mandated reviews that were conducted in early 2019 before the aid was announced in the first place. (It was one such announcement by the Defense Department in mid-June that apparently raised the aid to Trump’s attention and prompted his push to stop it.) Administration officials repeatedly cajoled the White House to release the aid. When Politico first reported on the hold in late August, a Defense official said on the record that the department had no concerns about its release.
That the War Room account went 0-for-8 in its Twitter thread isn’t really surprising. It exists specifically to offer spin along these lines, and this is a moment when spin was needed.
More jarring is the deployment of the official White House Twitter account to the same end. In recent months, as Trump himself has gotten more pugilistic, the White House social media presence has joined the fight, often retweeting even Trump’s more obviously partisan or obviously false claims.
As Schiff spoke, even this account offered spin about the events at issue and responses to his comments.
Adam Schiff just lied again, claiming that President Trump endorsed the theory that Russia did not interfere in 2016.— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 22, 2020
President Trump has publicly said, very clearly, that he accepts the conclusion of the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. pic.twitter.com/CYLLHsZgIG
It barely needs to be noted that Trump’s occasional, scripted statements about Russian interference in the 2016 election pale in comparison with his regular, impromptu assertions that Russia may not have been involved in interference at all. In 2018, Trump stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and told the world that he believed Putin’s claims that Russia hadn’t interfered.
That was the day before the video snippet above. In that snippet, by the way, Trump also says that the interference “could be other people also.”
Adam Schiff is LYING that President Trump withheld an Oval Office meeting from President Zelensky.— The White House (@WhiteHouse) January 22, 2020
President Trump invited President Zelensky to the White House—with no preconditions—on THREE occasions: April 21, May 29, & July 25.
They met at the first opportunity, at the UN.
He did extend a general invitation to Zelensky on those dates. In the case of July 25, it’s important to note, that was only because his team had already contacted Zelensky’s senior aide to make clear that a meeting was contingent on announcing investigations.
“Heard from White House — assuming President [Zelensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker wrote. On the call with Trump that day, Zelensky offered Trump the desired assurances — but no date was nailed down.
When Zelensky and Trump met in New York in September, Zelensky made a pointed reference to Trump’s failure to provide a date. Trump largely ignored the comment.
That New York meeting is referred to by the White House as the “first opportunity” for a Zelensky visit. In the months after Zelensky won his election, the White House managed to squeeze in visits from numerous other foreign leaders.
This tweet, the third in a series, is really remarkable.
The rough transcript of the July 25 call has two points at which Trump clearly requests investigations from Zelensky.
“I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine,” Trump says at one point, referring to a bizarre theory about Ukraine trying to blame Russia for interfering in the 2016 election. He later adds: “Whatever you can do, it’s very important that you do it if that’s possible.”
He later targets Biden.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” Trump said. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. … It sounds horrible to me.”
The White House tweet appears to hinge on the claim that Trump asked Zelensky to announce investigations when, instead, Trump solely used the moment to request the investigations he wanted to see. While Sondland testified that there was little pressure for a result beyond the announcement, it is true that Trump didn’t say Zelensky had to announce the investigations.
Other than that, though? It takes a lot of trust in Trump to accept his surrogates’ defenses of his behavior.
Correction: The date of the White House video was corrected.