January 25, 2020

From here on out, it’s all about the 2020 election.

Today Trump’s lawyers began their defense of the president in the Senate trial of the House of Representatives’ articles of impeachment. Those two articles are quite tightly focused on the Ukraine Scandal.

The first charges Trump with abuse of power when he “corruptly solicited the Government of Ukraine to public announce investigations into… a political opponent, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden… and a discredited theory promoted by Russian alleging that Ukraine—rather than Russia—interfered in the 2016 United States Presidential Election. With the same corrupt motives, President Trump—acting both directly and through his agents within and outside the United States Government… [withheld]… $391 million of United States taxpayer funds that Congress had appropriated on a bipartisan basis for the purpose of providing vital military and security assistance to Ukraine to oppose Russian aggression… and… a head of state meeting at the White House, which the President of Ukraine sought to demonstrate continued United States support for the Government of Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.” Trump did release the funds, but only after the hold had been revealed. Nonetheless, Trump “persisted in openly and corruptly urging and soliciting Ukraine to undertake investigations for his personal political benefit.” The article notes: “These actions were consistent with… Trump’s previous invitations of foreign interference in United States elections.

The second article charges him with obstruction of Congress by directing “the unprecedented, categorical, and indiscriminate defiance of subpoenas issued by the House of Representatives” as it sought to undertake an impeachment investigation, which the Constitution gives the House full and sole power to do. “In response, without lawful cause or excuse,… Trump directed Executive Branch agencies, offices, and officials not to comply with those subpoenas,” thus taking over functions and judgments the Constitution lodges in the House.

That’s it. Just the Ukraine Scandal and Trump’s attempt to hide what happened in that scandal by stonewalling the House’s oversight of it (which the House has a Constitutional requirement to do).

In past impeachment trials, the president’s defense has stuck to defending the president against the articles of impeachment, either arguing that the facts disprove the alleged behavior, or that the law allows the president to act as he did, or that the president’s behavior did not rise to the required level of high crimes and misdemeanors.

Not today. The day began with a tweet from Trump himself: “Our case against lyin’, cheatin’, liddle’ Adam “Shifty” Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer, nervous Nancy Pelosi, their leader, dumb as a rock AOC, & the entire Radical Left, Do Nothing Democratic Party, starts today at 10:00 A.M. on @FoxNews, @OANN or Fake News @CNN or Fake News MSDNC!”

Then, rather than sticking to the issues at hand, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Michael Purpurea, the deputy White House counsel, not only rehashed the complaints of Trump supporters about the alleged misdeeds of the Democrats, they also went on the offensive, accusing the Democrats of hiding facts, and of impeaching the president only to weaken him before the 2020 election.

On the one hand, we have the House’s carefully limited articles of impeachment, and the House managers’ masterfully prepared and delivered case for the prosecution. On the other hand, we have a series of accusations designed to rile up the emotions of Trump’s base. The argument is not based in fact, but in outrage, and in a classic twist of gaslighting, the president’s lawyers are either lying or blaming the Democrats for what they, themselves are doing.

Cipollone and Purpura started today essentially by echoing Trump’s frequent refrain: “Read the transcript.” They argue that the infamous July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky does not mention withholding money or a meeting in exchange for the announcement of the investigation into the Bidens and Burisma and of the role of Ukraine in the 2016 election that Trump mentions in it.

This is not a reflection of reality. First of all, there is no transcript; there is a rough readout that we know is incomplete. Further, the articles of impeachment do not center on that call; they show it as part of a larger pattern. While Trump didn’t mention the exchange in the call, we know that Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker relayed the message to Ukraine officials that day. We have their text messages.

And so it goes down each of the points Trump’s lawyers are making. Those points present a version of the truth which sounds entirely reasonable… until you look at the evidence that proves they are misdirecting your attention. So, for example, they insist that the Democrats are withholding facts, when the reality is that the president has blocked witnesses and documents and Republicans have so far refused to subpoena them. And they have accused the Democrats of trying to rig the 2020 election… when we have proof that the person trying to rig the election is Trump.

At this point, it seems fair to say that both the House impeachment managers and the Republicans have their eye on voters in the 2020 election. Adam Schiff and his team are trying to appeal to voters by demonstrating that they care about the principles of democracy and the fact-based world on which those principles are based.

Republicans are doubling down on gaslighting American voters, using the impeachment trial to do what Trump wanted Ukraine to do for him: attacking Biden and arguing that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that attacked our elections in 2016. Trump’s lawyer Jay Sekulow once again suggested that Ukraine rather than Russia attacked us, and Trump’s sometime lawyer Rudy Giuliani is back on the Fox News Channel insisting that he has proven that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that attacked us. (We now know, of course, that this is Russian propaganda.)

Will it work? I have heard people say that Trump’s lawyers were brilliant today in their rebuttal to the House managers, but their support seems to lie in their comfort that their familiar narrative has been reiterated in the face of facts that disprove it. (Even Matt Gaetz (R-FL) who has been a huge Trump supporter, told Politico that the defense looked like “an eighth-grade book report,” except that they didn’t seem to know how to use PowerPoint and iPads.)

But the media, at least, seems to be becoming aware of this technique. Today Secretary of State Mike Pompeo continued his attacks on NPR reporter Mary Louise Kelly, issuing a statement that claims she lied to him twice, and claiming the media has become “unhinged… in its quest to hurt President Trump and this Administration.” He went on “It is no wonder that the American people distrust many in the media when they so consistently demonstrate their agenda and their absence of integrity.” Then, though, he added something else: “It is worth noting that Bangladesh is NOT Ukraine.”

This classic gaslighting illuminates the techniques the president’s lawyers are using.  Of course, Bangladesh is not Ukraine. The statement is true. But taken in context—that Pompeo swore at Kelly and insisted she could not identify Ukraine on a map, and then she did—it is clear he was implying, without actually lying directly, that she had misidentified Ukraine for Bangladesh. That mistake is impossible for a well-trained long-time foreign reporter to make, but the word “Bangladesh” will be memorable to Trump supporters.

Media pushed back instantly on this contrived story, calling it out for what it was, rather than both-sides-ing the issue by exploring how, indeed, Bangladesh is not Ukraine. Similarly, when Giuliani tried to convince Fox News Channel personality Jeanine Pirro on her show tonight that he had proven the Ukraine story, she pushed back, insisting on evidence.

And while the Senate has not yet decided whether or not it will permit witnesses and the submission of documents, there will undoubtedly be more evidence whether GOP senators want it or not. Today, Lev Parnas’s attorney said there are more private recordings of Trump like the one they released yesterday, and that they have been transmitted to the House Intelligence Committee.

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Notes:

Giuliani:

Articles of impeachment: https://www.npr.org/2019/12/10/786579846/read-articles-of-impeachment-against-president-trump

Gaetz: https://news.yahoo.com/gop-rep-matt-gaetz-praised-193837056.html?soc_src=hl-viewer&soc_trk=fb

GOP argument: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/25/assessing-trump-teams-6-point-impeachment-defense/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/01/25/trumps-lawyers-are-absolutely-entitled-their-own-facts/

Sekulow:

Pompeo: