“The whistleblower said lots of things that weren’t so good, folks. You’re going to find out,” Trump said Monday at a campaign rally. “These are very dishonest people.”
Behind him were men and women in “Read the Transcript” T-shirts — echoing through their apparel Trump’s attempt to recast an incriminating summary of his July 25 call with Ukraine’s president as a piece of exonerating evidence.
It’s a form of gaslighting that has become the central defense strategy for the president as he faces his greatest political threat yet. But the approach is coming under increasing strain as congressional Democrats release transcripts and prepare to hold public hearings presenting evidence that directly undercuts Trump’s claims.
That the whistleblower report essentially mirrors the set of facts that have since been revealed by a stream of documented evidence and sworn testimony has not stopped Trump from repeatedly claiming otherwise. He has also pushed other specious arguments in his harried attempt to counter the growing evidence from witnesses implicating his administration in a quid pro quo scheme linking military aid to Ukrainian investigations targeting Democrats.
Without evidence, Trump has claimed that his own administration officials who have complied with congressional subpoenas are “Never Trumpers.” He has recounted conversations in which senators deemed him “innocent,” only to have the lawmakers deny making the statements. He has dismissed polls that show growing support for impeachment as “fake,” while repeatedly claiming levels of Republican support that exceed anything that exists in public polling.
“I don’t know whether he believes all these things or he takes pleasure in inventing false narratives, but I think the most important thing here is that no president can sustain his hold on the public for long when he loses his credibility,” said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian.
Trump’s repetitive use of false claims represents an attempt to immunize himself from impeachment by seeding favorable information in the minds of the public, even when that information is incorrect, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center.
“We know from work in social psychology that repeated exposure to a claim increases the likelihood that you think it’s accurate,” she said. “As you hear or read something repeatedly, you are more likely to think it’s accurate even if faced with evidence that it’s not.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment.
While Trump has made more than 13,000 false and misleading claims since he became president, his attempts to distort reality have crashed headlong into a fast-moving impeachment process that has secured damaging testimony from several Trump administration officials who have contradicted him under oath.
Since Democrats began their impeachment inquiry in September, Trump’s most consistent defense has been the false assertion that the whistleblower complaint “bears no resemblance” to his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. Trump has referred to the whistleblower’s allegations as “false,” “fraudulent,” “wrong,” “incorrect,” “so bad,” “very inaccurate,” and “phony.”
But the whistleblower’s account — which documented how Trump pressed Zelensky to work with Attorney General William P. Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter — has been corroborated by the reconstructed transcript released by the White House. Witness testimony has also backed up most of the whistleblower report’s main conclusions, including that White House lawyers sought to “lock down” records of the call by moving them into a highly classified system.
In his repeated claims disputing the accuracy of the whistleblower’s account, Trump has only rarely gone into detail to say what he considered inaccurate. Trump has misquoted the report each time he has attempted to provide evidence of the whistleblower’s alleged errors.
“The whistleblower said ‘quid pro quo’ eight times,” Trump said last month. “It was a little off — no times.”
The whistleblower report did not make any references to “quid pro quo,” let alone eight.
Trump’s willingness to repeatedly mislead the public represents an attempt to protect himself by creating doubt about the fundamental nature of truth, said Michael Steele, former chairman of the Republican National Committee.
“One thing we’ve all noticed with Trump is he knows how to strategically create confusion,” he said. “To go on the record with a baldfaced lie, it doesn’t matter whether you fact-check him in real time, it doesn’t matter if there’s a hue and cry afterwards, his calculation is that there’s enough confusion that you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t.”
Trump has also sought to draw other Republicans into his truth-defying defenses, drawing rare pushback from lawmakers who disputed his accounts of their conversations.
Last month, Trump quoted conversations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), claiming that both lawmakers deemed his conduct with Ukraine “innocent.”
“I read Mitch McConnell’s statement yesterday, and he read my phone call. And, as you know, he put out a statement that said that was the most innocent phone call he’s read,” Trump told reporters last month. “And I spoke to him about it, too. He read my phone call with the President of Ukraine. Mitch McConnell — he said, ‘That was the most innocent phone call that I’ve read.’ ”
McConnell never released such a statement, and when asked about Trump’s claim, said, “We’ve not had any conversations on that subject.” Asked if the president was lying, McConnell responded, “You’d have to ask him.”
Trump also claimed that Scott made a statement saying that “the president is innocent. Forget about due process. He’s innocent.”
Scott, when asked if he had said what Trump claimed he had, said “yeah, no,” disputing the claim that he did not care about due process. He did say, for the first time publicly, that he considered Trump “innocent of an impeachable offense.”
Trump’s defenders say his unorthodox style is what allowed him to connect with voters and win the presidency three years ago. Many dismiss hand-wringing over the accuracy of Trump’s statements as a sign of Washington’s disconnectedness from average voters.
“This is another case in American politics of those on each side taking the same written words and reaching their own conclusions,” said Ed Brookover, a Republican strategist and former Trump campaign adviser. “Just as with the so-called Russian collusion case, you’re going to find a whole lot of nothing here again. . . . When the president says, ‘Here we go again,’ it’s a very believable message.”
Public polling has shown steadily increasing support for the Democratic-led impeachment probe into whether Trump abused his power for personal and political gain. Officials from the State Department and White House have provided sworn testimony describing the Trump administration’s attempt to secure political investigations by the government in Ukraine while the president withheld almost $400 million in congressionally approved military aid and the chance for a visit with Zelensky.
Trump has dismissed the unfavorable poll numbers as “fake,” claiming on Saturday that he had “the real polls.” Trump has tweeted several times that he has 95 percent support within the Republican Party, an inflated number that far exceeds the 74 percent figure in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. No other public polling has shown Trump’s GOP support at 95 percent.
But the president’s varying assertions have had trouble gaining a foothold amid mounting incriminating information from the impeachment probe, which has begun to enter a more public-facing phase.
On Tuesday, Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, acknowledged telling one of Zelensky’s advisers that resumption of U.S. aid was tied to anti-corruption investigations that would target Democrats.
The acknowledgment in a deposition released Tuesday was a reversal from his earlier testimony, which Trump had previously cited in an attempt defend himself from charges of a quid pro quo.
The testimony from Sondland, a Trump donor and political appointee, could be more difficult for the president to dismiss than the allegations of several other Trump administration officials who have also described a political quid pro quo.
Trump has claimed without evidence that those officials were “Never Trumpers” peddling false accusations.
It’s part of a strategy to paint all incriminating information as emanating from biased sources, Jamieson said.
“If you can construct the world that anybody who says anything negative about the president is a venal partisan, you never have to get into any of the evidence because you distort the evidence and discredit the source of it,” she said. “That’s what Donald Trump does.”