A new report aimed at defending Donald Trump against Democratic claims of abuse of power represented a remarkable demonstration of the President’s greatest political achievement – the transformation of the Republican Party in his image.
The 123-page document written by GOP members on three House committees formalized the President’s own cycle of distraction and denial that he used to ride out the Russia scandal. He’s using the same tactic to save his job now that he’s faced with impeachment over his political pressure on Ukraine.
“I think it’s very unpatriotic of the Democrats,” Trump said of the impeachment process Tuesday in London alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. “I think it’s a bad thing for our country. Impeachment wasn’t supposed to be used that way.”
Trump isn’t waiting to hear the formal case against him because he doesn’t have to. Ultimately, it will make little difference since his defense was long ago unmoored from fact and is based on selling a disinformational narrative to his followers that sows confusion and devalues truth for everyone else.
The report released by the President’s House Republican allies on Monday was in effect the prebuttal of a report on the Democratic impeachment investigation set to be released by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Tuesday.
The message of the document – less a defense of Trump on the merits but rather an endorsement of his counterfactual denials – was simple: Nothing Trump did when it came to Ukraine was wrong. His scheme run by personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to coerce Ukraine to investigate a political foe, Joe Biden, was just fine, according to the partisan document. Contrary to what top officials testified, there was no quid pro quo, House Republicans claim. And the whole Ukraine drama amounts to a coup by his “deep state” enemies – despite an avalanche of evidence otherwise.
The report, which ignores significant and incriminating testimony against Trump, is a clear sign of confidence among Republicans that the pro-Trump conservative coalition will hold and that despite the apparent strength of the Democratic case, it will not cause a political earthquake in a tribalized nation that could see the President ousted.
The report’s refusal to even acknowledge any inappropriate behavior by Trump – in the face of direct evidence – also offers a marker for how Republicans may approach an eventual Senate impeachment trial.
The report is so overtly partisan that it may undermine its own effectiveness among all but the President’s strongest supporters.
“I think they overplayed their hand, whatever hand they had,” said Ryan Goodman, a former Defense Department special counsel on “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
“It defies what we just learned in the past two weeks in the public hearings,” he said, citing testimony of Trump-appointed officials alarmed by the President’s behavior.
In a significant evolution of the defense of the President that tests the GOP’s credibility, the report argued there was nothing wrong in Trump’s concern about business activities of Biden’s son Hunter in Ukraine – even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing and the President stood to gain politically.
A jury that has made up its mind
The House GOP rebuttal was an example of what lawyers do – frame a counter-narrative to the prosecution case using selective evidence to paint their client in a favorable light.
It encapsulated many GOP complaints about the Democratic process aired during televised impeachment hearings last month.
“The evidence presented does not prove any of these Democrat allegations and none of the Democrats’ witnesses testified to having evidence of bribery, extortion or any high crime or misdemeanor,” the report released on Monday said.
But the report’s function was primarily political. Unlike a defense lawyer’s appeal to a jury, this read more like a case designed specifically to people who had already made up their mind – the Trump-voting American public that they hope is large enough to save the presidency.
As such, it will tell a tale for history of the current political moment in which the President gambled on ruling by division rather than uniting the nation in a broad coalition.
It’s a political maneuver in which Trump does not contest facts – he categorically calls on supporters to ignore the evidence of their own eyes and blows smoke to thwart wider understanding.
This was most clear when the GOP report addressed the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 when he asked for a “favor” – a probe into a 2016 conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the election and suggested Kiev also look in the activity of the Bidens.
The report however, barely credibly, describes the rough transcript of the call as reflecting “laughter, pleasantries and cordiality.”
It also takes Trump’s own claim that there was no pressure on Zelensky on the call as credible evidence there was none. In this, the report contradicts clearly established facts and Trump’s habit of crushing the constraints of his office in public view.
As well as the evidence of the call, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has publicly said that quid pro quos related to aid are a normal part of foreign policy and told reporters to “get over it.”
Trump said at the White House on October 3 that if Ukraine was “honest” it would investigate the Bidens, in a possible abuse of his authority in shaping foreign policy for personal political gain.
Adopting Trump’s vision of the presidency, the report kept faith with Trump’s mantra of never admitting a scintilla of wrongdoing. It said Trump had a deep seated suspicion of corruption in Ukraine – though one witness, US diplomat David Holmes, said he was told by the US ambassador to the Ukraine that Trump only cared about “big stuff” like investigating Biden.
The ‘deep state’ is back
The GOP report also fleshed out a narrative of a thwarted “deep state” coup inside the US government and conspiracies that Trump and conservative media allies have been spreading even before he took office as a glue to firm up his voting base.
Though written in legalese, the report often appeared to formalize the President’s Twitter feeds and the monologues of conservative news show hosts who support the President.
“The Democrats are trying to impeach a duly elected President based on the accusations of assumptions of unelected bureaucrats who disagreed with President Trump’s policy initiatives and processes,” the report read. “They are trying to impeach President Trump because some unelected bureaucrats chafed at an elected President’s ‘outside the beltway’ approach to diplomacy.”
Current and former US officials testified last month that they were shocked at Trump’s efforts to hijack foreign policies based on long understood interests for his own political gain.
Trump has used similar fact-bending defenses for years.
The reappearance on the scene this weekend, for instance, of the former FBI agent Lisa Page – who was accused of political bias against the President in the Russia investigation – let him revive a familiar unfounded conspiracy theory against the FBI.
The President did not take long to demonstrate the political game at work over impeachment Monday – sending a tweet from Britain where he just landed for a NATO meeting.
Activating a mutual cycle of reinforcement with GOP allies, Trump warmly praised the GOP allies who wrote it and who rely on his support for their careers.
“I read the Republicans Report on the Impeachment Hoax. Great job! Radical Left has NO CASE. Read the Transcripts. Shouldn’t even be allowed. Can we go to Supreme Court to stop?” he tweeted.
Trump used the same attaboy tactic to praise Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican who again suggested equivalence between critical comments about Trump from some Ukrainian officials and a state-sponsored Russian spy operation targeting the 2016 election.
And the President’s daily cycle of disinformation whirled on with his selective quote from an interview with Time magazine and several European outlets in which Zelensky denied he discussed a quid pro quo with the President but appeared to rebuke him for holding back aid when his government is waging a bitter war with pro-Russian separatists.