At today’s impeachment hearing, the counsels for the House Judiciary Committee and the House Intelligence Committee testified. It was immediately clear that the Republicans were not even going to pretend to care about the process at hand. They were playing for sound bites and dramatic moments to construct an alternative reality for their base.
Republicans positioned posters in the room for the cameras, and as soon as the hearing started, a host from the conspiracy theory website InfoWars started yelling that the Democrats were committing treason. He had to be removed.
For the rest of the day, the Republicans made little effort to defend the president, and instead simply performed for the cameras, interrupting, yelling, trying to interrupt the proceedings. Their statements fed their alternative reality rather than dealing with the damning facts at hand. I was interested to see, for example, that according to Guy Reschenthaler (R-PA) the document dump I wrote about yesterday was up to 8000 pages today. (There is still no evidence that this document dump ever happened.) There was also a lot of screaming at Democrats because of lack of key witnesses, a bit rich considering the White House is blocking all them from testifying.
One thing about their speeches and questioning of the witnesses jumped out. Republicans focused on the idea that the Democrats had engaged in spying, and demanded to know more about how the House Intelligence Committee had gotten access to phone records (they were subpoenaed). This has come up a lot since the release of the committee report last week; Fox News personality Sean Hannity seems especially worried about such “spying” and asked a guest on air if Congress could, say, get HIS phone records. Those records connect Ranking Member of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes with Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his indicted colleague Lev Parnas. Republicans seem eager to smother that connection with accusations that the records were accessed illegally (they were not).
Judiciary chair Jerrold Nadler has been criticized for letting the Republicans ran amok today, but I’m not sure he made a mistake. The sight of congresspeople treating a congressional hearing with contempt will not play well with people not firmly in their camp. Rather than looking like he was silencing the Republicans, Nadler let them do largely as they wished, and their behavior escalated as they tried to outdo each other. Seeing Matt Gaetz explode, talking out of turn over everyone, might play well on Fox, but lots of Americans don’t like seeing their government treated like a middle-school brawl.
The Republicans’ antics were not what disturbed me most today.
Midmorning, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. For his whole term, Trump has belittled the Russia story by insisting that the FBI illegally spied on him because anti-Trump staffers-- represented in his frequent retellings by Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who exchanged texts critical of Trump—wanted him to lose the election.
The entire Russia investigation, he said, was a witch hunt inspired by the Steele Dossier, an investigation funded, he insisted, by the Clinton campaign. No matter how many people testified under oath that they did not open the investigation because of the Steele Dossier, that there was good reason to believe certain of Trump’s campaign officials might be Russian assets, and that the FBI was not acting from political motives, Trump could not be shaken from his narrative.
So the Inspector General investigated.
His report criticized the FBI for how it handled four FISA applications, that is, the applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for a warrant to wiretap people suspected of being foreign spies.
And it rejected every one of Trump’s claims. The FBI did not base its investigation on the Steele Dossier, but rather on such problematic relations between four Trump campaign officials and Russia—Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos-- that there was ample reason to believe that at least one of them was a Russian asset. As for the idea that the investigation was instigated by Clinton supporters, the report dismissed that and noted that, in fact, it had turned up a number of texts from FBI agents who were Trump supporters and chatted about their excitement when he was elected. Neither they nor those like Strzok and Page had carried their views into their work, it concluded.
(Just to take this piece off the table, the report also included a letter from FBI Director Christopher Wray explaining how the FBI would improve its performance on FISA applications.)
What happened next suggests we are entering a new phase of disinformation, when leaders no longer try to spin facts but simply make their own and sell their false narrative on state media.
The president and Attorney General William Barr did not dispute the Inspector General’s report. Instead, they announced that it said the exact opposite of what it actually did. Here’s Trump: “It is incredible. Far worse than I ever would’ve thought possible. It’s an embarrassment to our country, it’s dishonest. It’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.” “This was an overthrow of government, this was an attempted overthrow -- and a lot of people were in on it.” (Trump was a private citizen when the Russia investigation began in July 2016.)
Attorney General Barr: “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”
Barr had been concerned that Horowitz’s report would, in fact, disprove Trump’s conspiracy theory, so he dispatched the US Attorney for Connecticut John Durham to do his own review of the FBI’s Russia investigation last April. Today, Durham issued a statement saying “we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions.” Under federal law, the Justice Department’s Inspector General evaluates US Attorneys, not the other way around. In addition, it is not appropriate to comment on incomplete findings of an on-going investigation. Clearly Durham was under pressure to make this statement.
The IG report did not surprise those of us who have been listening to testimony and reading documents here in the real world, but it evidently shocked those in Trump’s bubble. The FNC show “Fox & Friends” had booked James Comey to appear on the show Tuesday morning to talk about the report, but cancelled as soon as it came out.
Instead, on his radio show, Sean Hannity simply followed Trump’s lead. “Everything we said, everything we reported, everything we told you was dead-on-center accurate. And the mob and the media has missed what is the biggest abuse of power [and] corruption scandal in the history of the country.”
This. Is. The. Exact. Opposite. Of. What. The. Report. Says.
Things in Washington are going to get worse as the Judiciary Committee unveils articles of impeachment tomorrow, on the same day that Trump is meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the second time. The first time the two met was right after Comey was fired and Trump horrified national security officials by sharing classified information with Lavrov and his team.
One way or another, tomorrow will make the history books.