After weeks of taking depositions behind closed doors, Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee probably knew they would get what they wanted out of the public impeachment hearings over the past week. Republicans are betting none of it will be enough to cancel the Trump Show.
The icing on the cake for Democrats came on Wednesday, when Gordon Sondland, President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, said he and other top diplomats understood that the White House withheld military aid from Ukraine and dangled a coveted meeting with Trump in a quid pro quo exchange for a public announcement from Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that his government would launch investigations into Trump’s political rivals. Trump distanced himself from Sondland and denied any wrongdoing on Wednesday.
Over the past week, witness after witness confirmed Trump’s distrust toward Ukraine and his obsession with conspiracy theories that adhere to his political narrative. Sondland and others described a shadowy campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure the Ukrainian government into announcing that it would open investigations into two of these now-debunked conspiracy theories, creating a “logjam” in U.S. foreign policy that undermined a multiyear campaign to bolster Ukraine as a buffer against Russian expansionism.
“We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we were playing the hand we were dealt,” Sondland testified on Wednesday. “We followed the president’s orders.”
Career diplomats were frustrated if not sidelined outright by Trump and Giuliani, and at least one of them raised a red flag outside of Trump’s immediate circle of influence after the president’s now-infamous July 25 phone call, when Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate CrowdStrike as well as Joe and Hunter Biden. What followed was a whistleblower complaint, and then a formal impeachment inquiry that Republicans are attempting to cast as a purely partisan sideshow.
Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican minority chair of the House Intelligence Committee and Trump’s first line of defense in Congress, said on Tuesday that the “American people aren’t buying” the case against Trump. Republicans spent their energy poking holes in the impeachment inquiry, insisting that Trump had valid reasons to withhold aid from Ukraine and be concerned about the two conspiracy theories that at one time had lit up the right-wing media: That Ukrainians, not Russians, hacked the Democratic National Committee’s email server during the 2016 election; and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter were involved in Ukrainian corruption.
“TV ratings are way down,” Nunes said on Tuesday, repeating a refrain from earlier hearings that echoed right-wing activists. Whether viewers are following the impeachment inquiry on cable news is beside the point. Several key Trump administration officials refused to honor subpoenas and testify as witnesses to Trump and Giuliani’s alleged attempts to use U.S. foreign policy for personal and political gain, leaving holes in the evidence. Nunes repeatedly said Democrats have been trying to impeach Trump since day one, but like Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, the latest inquiry is a partisan “circus.”
Republicans accused Democrats of trafficking in conspiracy theories, even as they were forced to defend Trump’s acceptance of conspiracy theories that would shape U.S. policy toward Ukraine, a key partner in the effort to contain Russia.
Trump Buoyed by Right-Wing Media
Republicans generally used their time to drag the inquiry into the weeds and generate talking points that allowed the conservative media to obscure the Democrats’ case and make excuses for the president’s actions. Trump publicly attacked several witnesses in an attempt to undermine their credibility, including his former and current employees, and Democrats raised questions about witness tampering.
Conservative pundits took the ball and ran with it, repeating conspiracy theories and smearing Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the nonpartisan National Security Council (NSC) official who testified on Tuesday that he reported Trump’s push for self-serving “deliverables” from Zelensky to a NSC lawyer. One Evangelical Christian pundit insisted that “Satan is behind” the impeachment proceedings.
Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People For the American Way, who studies evangelical and conservative media and blogs at Right Wing Watch, said even the supposed “guardians of truth” in the right-wing Christian movement don’t seem to care about the truth. Their overriding “value” is “defending Trump.”
“I think the right-wing media is more than willing to play their part in spreading the White House talking points on these things,” Montgomery told Truthout. “We’ve heard stories about [Sean] Hannity being on the phone with Donald Trump, and we know Trump watches ‘Fox & Friends’.”
Montgomery said Trump and his right-wing defenders have created a “self-reinforcing bubble” in the media where a good chunk of the electorate gets most of its news. Thanks to Trump’s constant attacks on the media, his supporters refuse to believe anything else. Conspiracy theories regularly trickle up from the fringe of the right-wing media ecosystem and into the commentary on Fox News, Montgomery said, where Trump picks them up. As president, anything Trump says is news, thus injecting fringe ideas into the mainstream.
Critics point out Trump’s habit of embracing conspiracy theories may have gotten him into the impeachment mess. However, the political spin and the spread of misinformation by Republican lawmakers and pundits could also save him from it, at least in the eyes of conservatives.
Democrats have provided some ammo. While Ukrainian officials and U.S. diplomats have made it clear that Joe Biden fought corruption in Ukraine during the Obama administration rather than participating in it, witnesses agreed with Republicans that his son Hunter’s former position on the board of Burisma, a controversial Ukrainian gas firm, could create the perception of a conflict of interest. A conspiracy theory claiming Joe Biden pushed for a Ukrainian prosecutor to be fired in order to protect Hunter and Burisma has been debunked. However, Democrats have refused Republican demands that the younger Biden testify.
Without clarity as to whether corrupt Ukrainians offered Biden’s son a lucrative position at Burisma in order to curry favor with the Obama administration, Republicans will continue to hammer Democrats on the issue and claim that Trump and Giuliani had good reason to press Zelensky for an investigation. Conspiracy theories will continue to proliferate on the right.
“I think that’s one of the challenges of the Trump era, there are so many lies that it’s hard to bat them all down,” Montgomery said, adding that this has created conundrums for the “fact-based media.”
Indeed, polls show that a significant majority of voters have already made up their minds about Trump, and the impeachment hearings won’t change their views. While 56 percent say they agree Trump has committed an impeachable offense, there is a massive split between Democrats and Republicans on that question, and overall support for impeaching and removing the president has hovered just below 50 percent for weeks.
The vast majority of Republican voters are opposed to impeachment and likely agree with the president, House Republicans and right-wing pundits that the Democrats’ inquiry is a partisan sham. Republicans in the Senate know this, and the chance they would use their majority to actually remove the sitting president if House Democrats vote to impeach is extremely slim, despite the bombshells dropped by Sondland and others this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said as much.
Democrats Should Cast a Wide Impeachment Net
Still, Democrats are pushing forward with impeachment. Rep. Adam Schiff, the lead Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, summed up the question facing lawmakers on Tuesday.
“If the president abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections, if he sought to condition, coerce, extort, or bribe an ally into conducting investigations to aid his re-election campaign and did so by withholding official acts — a White House meeting or hundreds of millions of dollars of needed military aid — it will be up to us to decide, whether those acts are compatible with the office of the presidency,” Schiff said.
Trump apparently abandoned his push for a quid pro quo with Zelensky shortly before the military aid was released September, after the aid was held up for months. Republicans remain unconvinced that he did anything wrong, dooming impeachment to a divisive and partisan affair. While Democrats have focused on Ukraine, they are sending a broader message to voters ahead of the 2020 election: Trump puts himself before the nation and cannot be trusted, especially on foreign policy. Articles of impeachment may include allegations of “bribery,” witness tampering and obstruction of justice. They should cast an even wider net.
Congress has already rebuked Trump several times on foreign policy. Congress passed historic legislation condemning U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s coalition fighting in Yemen’s horrifying civil war. Lawmakers in both parties were outraged when Trump defended the Saudi Crown Prince after the murder of Saudi activist and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They were outraged when Trump caved to Turkey and withdrew troops from key positions in northern Syria, greenlighting a Turkish invasion that sparked a humanitarian crisis and threw key Kurdish allies into a bloody war. They were outraged when he invited Turkey’s autocratic leader to the White House last week.
There are two Trump Towers in Turkey, and Saudi royals have spent large sums of money at his hotels in the U.S. Trump has so far dodged allegations that his business interests violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
Recently, Trump pardoned military service members accused or convicted of war crimes, sparking widespread controversy.
“Obviously, war crimes are impeachable offenses,” said Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at Illinois University, in a statement. “Trump is commander-in-chief and has become an accomplice to the war crimes he is pardoning. These are just the latest illegal actions by Trump that the Congress is refusing to address.”
Back home, Trump has been accused of stoking white nationalist violence with racist rhetoric, bigoted attacks on congresswomen of color who have faced death threats from his supporters, and his intense crackdown on immigrants and asylum seekers. Stephen Miller, the architect of Trump’s immigration policy, has been exposed as a white nationalist who worked closely with “alt-right” media outlets that spread conspiracy theories and extremist, anti-immigrant views. Civil rights activists and lawmakers are demanding Miller step down, but the White House continues to defend him.
House Democrats are unlikely to spend any more time on investigations beyond Ukraine. However, they could pass a resolution condemning Miller and demanding he step down. They could pass legislation to shut down the vast network of jails and border cages holding record numbers of immigrants. They could write articles of impeachment that paint Trump in broad strokes, making it clear that Trump is not just guilty of prioritizing his political interests above U.S. foreign policy. Trump is unfit for office, and his administration is racist and dangerous. Republicans and the right-wing media may dismiss these efforts as partisan attacks, but it would send a strong message to voters and the rest of the world: Trump represents himself and the far right, not the rest of us.