November 21, 2019
Today was a revealing day for me in all this chaos, and I have not been able to stop thinking about it all.
Trump’s former Russia and Ukraine expert, Dr. Fiona Hill, testified today, and her testimony was electric. She was whip smart, cool, measured, thorough. No matter what anyone threw at her, she knew the answer, and delivered it with such detail and confidence that it was immediately clear she was a force to be reckoned with. She corrected timelines and laid out criminality, insisting that there was, indeed, a secret and illegal channel directly from Trump to Mike Pompeo and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani, designed to influence the 2020 US elections, a channel she opposed and despised because it weakened American on the world stage. She was crystal clear that this back channel was designed not to protect national security, but to benefit Trump.
By midday, Hill had become a phenomenon on Twitter, with former Federalist Society anti-Trump lawyer George Conway offering to start a fan club for her and Peter Sagal of NPR’s Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me summing up her extraordinary performance up in a tweet:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my Soul to keep,
And I screw up, I hope He will
Please not tell Fiona Hill
Dr. Hill’s testimony was absolutely damning. So was that of her colleague, David Holmes, who witnessed the July 26 phone call between Trump and Sondland when they discussed trading an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma for a White House visit. Holmes tied Trump directly to the scheme, killing the GOP argument that the president was not involved. Damning, too, was the evidence of Laura Cooper, of the Defense Department, yesterday. Cooper testified that, contrary to GOP insistence that the Ukrainians could not feel pressured in the July 25 call because they did not know that military aid was being withheld until late August, Ukrainian officials had contacted her immediately after the call to ask what was going on with the aid.
Hill was clear, convincing, impressive, and, to those of us who study this stuff, she was also evidently a supporter of the Republican view of American government, although she also clearly works hard to make sure she doesn’t bring her political leanings into her work. (Her apparent political bent is going to matter in a second.)
Hill began her testimony with a very short statement, chastising the Republicans, including some of the people on the House Intelligence Committee, for parroting Russian propaganda designed to weaken America at home and internationally. The argument that it was Ukraine, rather than Russia, that attacked us in the 2016 election was Russian propaganda, she said, and she urged everyone advancing that conspiracy theory to stop. “In the course of this investigation,” she said, “I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Devin Nunes of California, ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee (meaning he is the top Republican on the committee), immediately pushed back. Despite his own constant reference to such conspiracy theories, he suggested that she was being unfair. He insisted that Republicans were well aware that Russians had interfered, but that it was entirely possible that Ukrainians had interfered as well. That is, he wasn’t going to stop parroting Russian propaganda.
And that, to me, was a revelation… not that Nunes talks in the exact same vein as Russian state media; I am quite used to that. But that, faced with a brilliant witness who was clearly in the Republican camp right up until she saw Trump cross into criminal territory that threatened American national security, he didn’t even pause. He treated her with disdain and continued his slavish reiteration of Russian talking points.
I watched the rest of Hill and Holmes’s testimony with a different eye. It jumped out that Jim Jordan (R-OH), John Ratcliffe (R-TX), and Devin Nunes (R-CA) were not at all interested in asking questions or making any kind of sense to a regular American. They were simply making speeches, yelling, and talking over the witnesses.
More though, using my new eye for propaganda techniques, they reminded me of nothing so much as being a talking head on a documentary. When producers are filming you in that situation, they very carefully ask questions to get a sound bite they can use. In that case, you are working together, of course, and you can craft your own answers until you like them. In this case, though, it seemed very clear to me that Jordan and Ratcliffe, and especially Nunes, were tangling the witnesses in questions designed to give the questioners short sound bites that they could then make into their own “documentaries.” They were salting the hearings with the language of conspiracies that people who don’t watch Fox cannot understand but which, in their sound bites, can be turned into a narrative that will misrepresent what was said and proven today, marketing it to True Believers who will then continue to support Trump and his party.
And then, as soon as they got their sound bites they would get up and leave the hearing, which Hill noted so it made the transcripts. Her point was that they don’t want the truth. They don’t want to govern. They want to be able to craft a narrative that will play on a Fox News show or on 4chan or on some other right-wing site that can keep their base convinced that the evidence presented has exonerated Trump, and that the Democrats are on a witch hunt, and that Ukraine, rather than Russia, attacked us in 2016. It makes sense to me now that Trump is maintaining in public that Sondland, for example, completely exonerated him by saying there was no quid pro quo when, in fact, Sondland said just the opposite. The truth doesn’t matter at all; what matters is the crafting of a narrative—propaganda—to feed the base so that Trump and his people can stay in power.
It. Is. All. About. The. Story. As I keep saying, Trump and Giuliani wanted Ukraine President Zelensky not to investigate Burisma and the Bidens, but simply to say on a major television channel that he was going to investigate them. That would salt the narrative, much as the constant stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then stories about her physical weaknesses, and so on, affected the outcome of the 2016 election.
Their attempts to pressure Ukraine into announcing an investigation into Burisma failed when a whistleblower complained to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, and the IC IG found the complaint urgent and credible. He passed it on, as required by law, to the acting Director of National Intelligence who, by law, was supposed to pass it on to the congressional intelligence committees. Instead, he took it to the Department of Justice, which told him not to deliver it, while also apparently telling Trump that news of the scheme had leaked out. The White House immediately released the withheld aid to Ukraine, but Schiff still found out that the complaint was being illegally withheld… and the whole scandal began to unravel.
Still, the conspirators did not get Ukraine to announce it was opening an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma.
Late this afternoon, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lindsey Graham, a strong Trump supporter, announced an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, asking Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to produce documents concerning the issue.