The spin coming out of the White House and among President Trump’s defenders in the wake of the Ukraine scandal reveals a desperate grasp for straws in their attempts to reframe the narrative as public developments—and the prospect of impeachment—grow more troubling each day. The wheels are coming off Trump’s misinformation machine.
We all know the story by now. An unnamed whistleblower—a C.I.A. officer, according to the New York Times—filed a complaint in August alleging that Trump had pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate acts of corruption by 2020 prospective rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter—who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company—allegedly intimating that forthcoming U.S. military aid to Ukraine may be predicated on Zelensky’s support.
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The Office of the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community found the staffer’s complaint credible, which the White House had initially attempted to prevent from being forwarded to Congress. Trump later admitted to the phone call with Zelensky, and the White House released a rough transcript of the conversation, wherein Trump asked the Ukrainian President for “a favor” to work with Attorney General William Barr and personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani regarding Biden’s Ukraine activities.
As it turns out, using the office of President to put pressure on a foreign power to dig up dirt on a political rival isn’t a “good thing,” and the subsequent formal impeachment inquiry launched by Nancy Pelosi et al. in September has escalated at an astonishingly fast pace. The House has since targeted Trump’s inner circle with subpoenas to testify before Congress, itself met by a stonewalling effort from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to which the House responded by claiming such an act may be considered further evidence of obstruction of justice. What a mess.
As the House’s inquiry that threatens his presidency heats up, the commander-in-chief has spent little time explaining his actions—he admitted to them, after all—and has instead resorted to the predictable tantrums and attacks that’ve become routine, old hat since 2016. “Fake News!” Trump said his July talk with Zelensky was “perfect” and referred to the House’s impeachment probe as “bullshit” before advising Democrats to “get a better candidate.” He doubled down on his initial call to investigate the Bidens for being “corrupt,” claiming, without evidence, that the former Ukraine prosecutor general had previously investigated Hunter Biden before publicly calling on China to pick up the Biden investigation. He also attacked the credibility of the heretofore unidentified whistleblower at the center of the Ukraine probe (or a “spy” and a “fraud,” as Trump called him), swearing to uncover the whistleblower’s identity, a claim that rankled even GOP lawmakers (there’s a federal law designed to protect the anonymity of federal employees who report on wrongdoing or illegal activities occurring within the government.) The usual deflection tactics were thrown in for good measure: random jabs at Hillary Clinton, threats to sue Robert Mueller (?!?). He’s now suggesting House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is guilty of “treason,” and suggested that his impeachment would result in a civil war. The strategy is embarrassingly obvious: throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
Trump’s allies in the conservative media haven’t done much better keeping a lid on the Ukraine scandal, resorting to a desperate defense strategy that relies on multiple parts disinformation and deflection. Fox News host Jesse Watters said Congress is going after Trump only for exposing “Biden family corruption.” Tucker Carlson, also focusing on the Biden’s foreign business interests, suggested a double standard in the rules as they involve Democrats’ political profiteering. Giuliani baselessly claimed Hunter Biden received $3M in laundered money from the Ukraine. Newt Gingrich, aping Trump’s penchant for histrionics, called the impeachment inquiry a “coup d'état.” Conservative site The Federalist (falsely) reported that whistleblower complaints must be heard firsthand in order to be valid. Several conservative outlets are now claiming the whistleblower met with Schiff before filing his complaint (he didn’t). Fox News on Oct. 3 even promised a “bombshell” report regarding documents the network claimed proved the former Ukraine prosecutor general was forced to dial back his investigation into the aforementioned Biden-connected energy company. What Fox failed to divulge in the segment was that those “documents” were—wait for it—written and supplied by Rudy Giuliani.
It’s not merely that Trump and his defenders are struggling to get on the same page in responding to these developments—they’re struggling to find a page, any page at all. Trump’s ability to dominate the media cycle has always been his strong suit; he’s been remarkably successful at contouring reality in an attempt to convince his supporters to believe what he wants them to believe, and perhaps his greatest legacy—if you could call it that—will be the effect the Trump era has had on the value of objective truth in modern society. But unlike the Mueller investigation, where there was always a consistent claim of innocence from the Trump camp, the President’s own admissions have set this chess board in such a way that deflection, conspiracy theories and more clumsy attempts at reinterpreting reality are the only means by which they have to spin this scandal as another “witch hunt” as opposed to a bona fide Constitutional crisis.