Two weeks of dramatic and incriminating public impeachment testimony did little to sever the strong bond between President Donald Trump, his Republican supporters and conservative media propagandists.
In fact, the more damning the suggestions of an abuse of power become, the deeper it forces Trump’s defenders into his wild brew of conspiracy theories, disinformation and distortion.
Trump is facing accusations that he withheld nearly $400 million in military aid and other recognition for Ukraine to try to force it to investigate a domestic opponent – Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden – and 2016 Democrats.
But despite an impeachment case that solidified in two weeks of public testimony, there are increasing signs that the President’s aggressive approach and mastery over the Republican Party in Washington is preventing any slippage of support from allies as Democrats prepare to pause the inquiry for Thanksgiving.
Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy on Sunday ignored the expertise of US spy agencies, congressional probes and the first half of the Mueller report to lend credibility to Trump’s claim that it was Ukraine that meddled in the 2016 election.
Asked by “Fox News Sunday” anchor Chris Wallace whether he believed Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential race, Kennedy answered: “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others.”
“It could also be Ukraine. I’m not saying that I know one way or the other,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy was embracing a fresh attempt by the President to cast doubt on the evidence of what US intelligence agencies say was Moscow’s operation to undermine faith in the 2016 election, denigrate Democrat Hillary Clinton and to help Trump win.
The President’s effort seems designed not only to give him a motive for leaning on Ukraine for an investigation but also to indulge his anger at any suggestion his win in 2016 was not legitimate.
He is also trying to build a narrative ahead of a Senate impeachment trial that he was actually the victim of an international conspiracy – not the perpetrator of one.
The latest counter-attack by the President comes with his White House, as is the case almost every Monday morning, consumed by new controversies that popped up over the weekend.
There is confusion over the exact circumstances of the firing of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer over the disciplining of a Navy SEAL to which Trump objected.
And several media reports and document releases over the weekend appeared to support the testimony of several witnesses last week that the off-the-books diplomatic scheme in Ukraine was wider than it first appeared.
A uniquely Trumpian approach to impeachment
In retrospect, advice from political savants for Trump to treat impeachment like former President Bill Clinton – ignore the noise and keep on working for Americans – seems quaint and so 20th Century.
Instead, Trump has pioneered his own unique strategy – ignore the mounting pile of damaging testimony and convince his supporters to dismiss the evidence of their own eyes. This is an approach consistent with the President’s famous comment in a speech to veterans last year: “What you are seeing and what you are reading is not what’s happening.”
Its effect is to create a wave of confusion and false narratives that undermine or swamp the true facts of the Ukraine scandal and diminish the potency of the most damaging witness accounts. And such is Trump’s political omnipotence among his supporters that he effectively gives his GOP allies a choice – engage with the evidence and cross him or join his fact-fogging operation.
Key witnesses, solid evidence, the words of acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and even the President’s own words in the rough transcript of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky suggest very strongly that there was an attempt to coerce Ukraine.
Yet House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said last week that “I think it was very clear there was no quid pro quo” and held out the call with Zelensky as proof of no wrongdoing, even though it seems to show quite the opposite and alarmed several senior national security officials.
McCarthy confidently predicted that no Republicans would break from the President in the House impeachment vote – in a sign of how tribal politics now dominates Washington institutions and how Trump’s power dominates the GOP on Capitol Hill.
New York Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin did not go quite as far as Kennedy on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday but did create an equivalence between Russian and Ukrainian election meddling.
“I believe that Russians interfered in the 2016 elections,” said Zeldin, citing intelligence assessments.
“It’s also true, it’s indisputable that there were Ukrainians who interfered in the 2016 election,” Zeldin said.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Republican Sen. Roger Wicker said that Ukraine – as well as Russia – interfered in the US election.
“I’m concerned about both. I’m concerned about both,” Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, said.
Such comments work for Trump on two levels.
First they give credence to his conspiracy theory that Ukraine tried to bring him down in 2016 and that he is correct to demand an investigation. And second, they give the impression that Russia and Ukraine are equally bad, that the email hacking, social media campaigns and approaches to the Trump campaign by Russians were less sinister than they appear.
While there are instances of Ukrainian politicians criticizing candidate Trump, there is no evidence of the kind of broad government-sanctioned effort by intelligence agencies to interfere in the election as Russia did.
What is particularly astounding about this spectacle is that the Republican Party – which prides itself as having won the Cold War by facing down Moscow – is effectively buying into a conspiracy theory energetically advanced by Russia itself.
US intelligence officials who briefed senators in recent months have reiterated the point that Russia has been engaging in a years-long effort to shift the blame of Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election to Ukraine, CNN reported Friday.
This was a warning echoed by Trump’s former top Russia expert Fiona Hill in her stunning testimony last Thursday.
“Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election,” Hill said.
“We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Trump leads the post-hearings charge
Trump set the tone for the post-hearings propaganda campaign late last week.
He showed up on “Fox and Friends” on Friday morning with a new offensive to discredit the fact pattern painstakingly laid out by investigators and former officials.
“I think it’s very hard for them to impeach you when they have absolutely nothing,” Trump said. He claimed he hardly knew most witnesses who testified — including US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who spoke about his expletive-laden calls with the President.
Trump accused former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch – who was pulled home after apparently getting in the way of his back-door foreign policy scheme – of refusing to put up his photo in her embassy. The President did not provide any proof for his assertion.
The tactic supported Trump’s effort to prove that he’s the victim of a “deep state” conspiracy by elite bureaucrats who have long conspired to throw him out of office.
And he again described his notorious July 25 phone call with Zelensky in which he asked for a “favor” and a probe into the Bidens as “perfect.”
In this way, the President, who made millions understanding the value of rebranding, is seeking to repackage the most damning single piece of evidence against him.
The GOP faced several choices after two weeks of hearings that built a strong case that the President abused his power to demand Ukraine to help him damage a domestic political opponent.
It could have acknowledged troubling facts corroborated by non-partisan career officials that Trump was pursing his own interests, not America’s, in foreign policy towards a key ally.
Or the party could have expressed discomfort with Trump’s behavior, but argued that Democrats did not prove their case conclusively — though such an approach was complicated by the White House refusal to provide key evidence and witnesses.
But there are also principled arguments to be made that while the President might have dishonored the expectations of his office, the polarizing national trauma of impeachment would overmatch the gravity of his transgressions. Given that an election is looming in less than a year, such an argument might have practical as well as political resonance.
Then Republicans had a third choice: embrace Trump’s campaign of denials and distortion designed to bury the case in a confusing layer of conspiracy theories and untruths.
House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes blazed the trail for Trump defenders, with opening statements in last week’s hearings that sounded like conservative media monologues.
His committee counterpart, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, who sat stone faced through the grandstanding by Nunes last week, said Sunday that even without Republican buy-in, Democrats were pressing ahead.
“At the end of the day, we have to decide what our constitutional duty is, even if our colleagues in the GOP and Congress have decided they’re more committed to the person and the president than their constitutional duty,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
“If this was Barack Obama had done this, they would have voted to impeach him in a heartbeat with a fraction of the evidence,” Schiff said. “It shouldn’t matter this is a Republican president.”