On the day that Democrats proposed two articles of impeachment against him, the President and his courtiers laid down a fresh fog to obscure the evidence that incriminates him.
The President also issued a mocking defense of his conduct at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Tuesday night – arguing that the charges that he abused power and obstructed Congress are “not even a crime.”
“Everyone said this is impeachment-lite. This is the lightest impeachment in the history of our country, by far. It’s not even like an impeachment,” Trump said.
Attorney General William Barr, meanwhile, reprised his role spinning his boss out of trouble, dismissing his own department’s watchdog report that debunked Trump’s repeated claim that a “Deep State” coup tried to bring him down. Barr also breathed fresh life into another of Trump’s conspiracy theories – that the FBI’s Russia investigation was unjustified and rooted in political bias by Obama administration officials.
“I think our nation was turned on its head for three years, I think, based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by an irresponsible press,” Barr said Tuesday in an interview with NBC News.
The comments reflected the tendency of the Trump administration to deflect damning facts and to create new narratives that the President and his fans find more appealing.
Trump’s never-ending stream of misinformation, half-truths and conspiracy theories seems designed to confuse voters and to create ambiguity and uncertainty about the outcome of investigations in a way that leaves even the closest observer unsure about the facts.
One expert in the work of such propagandists is former World Chess Champion and Russian political dissident Garry Kasparov.
“They know that, you know, they can get people exhausted, they exhaust critical thinking,” Kasparov told CNN’s Anderson Cooper last week.
“I always call Putin (a) merchant of doubt. But now seeing what’s happening in America, it’s when just Republicans managed to turn the whole political process in this alternative reality. It’s like a post-truth world.”
Torrent of attacks
For Trump, it all started in the opening hours of the administration when he sent then-press secretary Sean Spicer out on a mission to mislead reporters about the size of his inaugural crowd.
According to the latest Washington Post count, Trump has made more than 13,400 false or misleading claims in office.
Trump’s incessant torrent of attacks – on Twitter and on camera, amplified by conservative media outlets – has helped to insulate him against the consequences of his actions.
Though former special counsel Robert Mueller did not find a conspiracy between Trump’s team and Russia, he did find alarming evidence that the President expected to profit from Russian election meddling. But Trump’s verbal barrage politicized the former FBI director’s once unblemished public reputation and helped swamp his findings and draw the sting from their ultimate impact.
The President is using the same tactic in the impeachment inquiry, and has been partially successful in drowning out the consequences of damning testimony about his pressure on Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
The relentless wave of disinformation complicates the task of Democrats seeking to build a public case against the President. And it shapes a new narrative which Trump’s supporters and media cheerleaders can buy into and adorn.
That’s what is happening when Republicans like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy spread conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference in the US election in 2016. They are not only reflecting the strength of Trump’s hold on Republican voters and capacity to get lawmakers to toe the line. They are blurring the public record.
Given such head-fakery, the Democrats’ failure to convince seemingly any Republicans of Trump’s wrongdoing hardly seems surprising.
Barr and the all-powerful presidency
Another parallel between the climax of the Mueller report and the findings released by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz into the FBI’s Russia investigation is in the role of Barr.
In both cases, the attorney general downplayed the most damaging aspects of the report for Trump and played up highlights that fit best into the President’s political narrative.
And with the Horowitz report, Barr went a step further, declaring that his own investigation, conducted by US Attorney John Durham, will offer a more definitive version of the decisions made by the FBI in the Russia investigation.
“(Horowitz) is not definitively ruling that there was no bias. I think that’s why we have Durham,” Barr said Tuesday.
His comments raise doubts about his and Durham’s independence and could open him to claims he is leaning on the investigation to provide a finding more palatable to the President.
Barr’s return to the spotlight sheds insight into a more subtle tactic that the President is using to stave off impeachment – his concept that there are few limits to his permissible actions.
The attorney general is an enthusiast of a concept of an all-powerful presidency. He effectively auditioned for the job in an unsolicited memo to the White House that assailed Mueller’s theory on obstruction of justice.
On Tuesday, Barr dismissed the second article of impeachment drawn up by Democrats, arguing that Trump was within his power to reject multiple witnesses and document requests based on a claim of “absolute immunity.”
“I don’t believe it’s the case where somebody, including a branch of government, is asserting a legal privilege that they have under the law that that constitutes obstruction,” Barr said.
In many cases, Trump and his defenders do not present a detailed counter to the facts of the impeachment case. They simply argue that everything Trump did was within his rights.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham, for instance, said Tuesday: “The President will address these false charges in the Senate and expects to be fully exonerated, because he did nothing wrong.”
It should be noted that this version of a hyper-powerful executive smashing Washington’s establishment power structures was what helped win Trump the White House and retains a strong appeal to his supporters.
The call at the center of impeachment
Trump’s dual-pronged tactic to fight impeachment with untruths and power grabs is best illustrated by the key piece of evidence in the case – the rough White House transcript of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
By boasting that the conversation is “perfect,” Trump is gaslighting Americans about what is in the transcript.
Democrats in the impeachment investigation point out that Trump asks Zelensky for a “favor” after he brings up future purchases of US arms. Trump also asks the Ukrainian President to talk to Barr and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani about investigations into conspiracy theories about Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 election and his potential 2020 rival Biden and his son Hunter’s business in Kiev.
Several officials testified to the televised Intelligence Committee hearings that they were troubled by the call and its constitutional implications.
But by describing the call as “perfect,” Trump is also implicitly arguing that he is perfectly within his rights as President to pressure a foreign leader for a political favor.
Such an interpretation of the role of the presidency suggests that there are few limits to the authority of the office – and that such behavior is beyond Congress’ power to hold a commander-in-chief to account.
“He has obstructed Congress at every single stage,” said Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee.
“He has said that Article Two (of the Constitution) gives him the power to do anything he wants. We cannot allow that to happen,” Jayapal told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead.”