These proceedings

In the latest chapter of the Right's grievance wars, Republicans want you to believe an impossible story.

In recent weeks, I’ve become very good at identifying the congressman who’s speaking at any given moment, despite my back being turned to the TV while I work at my desk. I’ve memorized their voices because I’ve sat through dozens of hours of the impeachment hearings. This is a luxury reserved for a small class of people that includes journalists, pundits, politicians and their staffs, and all the people who make a living by paying attention to and documenting the news of each day.

We are a tiny minority. Most Americans will get their impeachment news in highly-distilled snippets, either from their local newspaper, which will run AP wire of the day’s developments, or their local television station, which will lean on their parent networks to tell the story. Beyond that, Americans will have their choice of partisan publications, websites and networks to learn of everything that happened in Washington while they were at work. 

Few will spend days on end watching the hearings live, like I have, to reach the fullest understanding of what has been transpiring for the last three weeks. 

What they’ve missed is actually pretty simple, and perfectly-suited for the failed both-sides coverage that daily journalism provides to most Americans. Democrats and Republicans are telling two stories. The first, the one that we know because a handful of witnesses have gone under oath to attest to it, is that Donald Trump extorted the president of Ukraine in an attempt to disparage his biggest political threat, Joe Biden. The second, the one that no one ever mentioned until after Trump was caught in his failed shakedown, is that he was actually trying to root out corruption in Ukraine, an issue he cares deeply about. 

Only one of these stories is true, but to know that you’d have to have been paying deep attention to this saga since at least September. The impeachment hearings will not inform you that the second story, the Republicans’ story, is complete and utter bullshit. Only the months and years worth of reporting on Ukraine that have become so much the focus of the American political world in the last three months will tell you that. And most Americans don’t have the time for such intensive reading.

So Republicans are capitalizing on this, exploiting the complexities of this story to hoodwink the ill-informed. But their flailing attempts to defend Trump are available for all to see, and they’re constantly evolving.

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In order, here are Republicans’ defense of the president so far:

  1. He didn’t extort the president of Ukraine. In fact it was a “perfect” call.

  2. Ok maybe Trump did extort Zelensky, but that’s his right as president in order to achieve his foreign policy goals.

  3. He ended up giving him the military aid eventually (after he got caught, they always fail to note) so no harm, no foul. And besides, that’s more than Obama did.

  4. Zelensky publicly said he felt “no pressure” from Trump, so there you have it.

And now, now that Republicans are being confronted by Democrats who are pointing out the many flaws in Republicans’ ever-changing defense of the president, they’ve come up with what they believe is their best story yet:

  1. Ok, Trump did extort Zelensky, but he did it to make sure he was “the real deal” and was actually going to take on corruption in Ukraine. Also the Bidens should be investigated.

Ensuring Zelensky was “the real deal” is Rep. Jim Jordan’s favorite line at the moment. He and every other Republican in Congress want Americans to believe that Trump held up the aid because he had great concerns about Zelensky’s commitment to attacking corruption. The major problem with this story is that no one really said this until weeks after the transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky was released.

If this was their primary defense, one would think they’d have said so back in September. But it isn’t. The Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader story Americans will hear in aggregated form through the media until the Senate eventually votes against impeaching Trump (which they will), has not been Republicans’ primary defense because it is not true. This is a story that no one came up with until after Trump had been caught.

Republicans still employe defenses 1 - 4 occasionally. Mostly they revert to “Zelensky said he felt no pressure.” As in last week, when Rep. Louie Gohmert said, “I’ve never sent anyone to prison in a case where the victim didn’t know they were the victim,” referencing both his days as a judge and Zelensky’s public comment.

But, like many victims of many crimes — including women who have been sexually assaulted by powerful men, like the three dozen who’ve accused Trump himself of doing — Zelensky is prohibited by fear of retaliation from speaking out.

He is the head of a vulnerable, fledgling democracy that is almost entirely reliant on the U.S. to fight a hot war against Russia, and yet Gohmert expects him to tell the world that, yes, he actually did feel pressure from the man who holds the purse strings that keep Ukraine free. 

***

Republicans have decided that the Donald Trump, Corruption Crusader defense is a hill they’re willing to die on. It’s a good defense for them because no one can really prove or disprove it — to do so you’d have to know what was in Trump’s heart. Somewhere in there, Republicans insist, is a long-held belief that Ukrainian corruption must be stamped out, and he’d be the one to do it. 

They’re going to die on the hill of that defense because they’re now saying they’re a part of its completely untrue core: Jordan and others are going on the record each day saying they support the withholding of aid to make sure that Zelensky was “the real deal.” They’re on record as saying that the Bidens should be investigated — “This Burisma stuff, there’s something happening there,” Gohmert insisted last week. But there’s a very simple reason Americans shouldn’t believe Republicans when they say there’s enough smoke for Biden to be investigated: they looked at that same smoke for eight years and never did anything about it.

Following these proceedings, Americans will have even more evidence that Republicans’ final defense, this fantastical story of Trump crusading against corruption first and exposing the Bidens’ role in it second, is a farce. Once the Senate votes not to impeach Trump, they’ll have the numbers and momentum they’ll need to launch a full investigation of Biden and Burisma. But they won’t.

Republicans will get away with that obvious hypocrisy for the same reason they’ve convinced generations of working class Americans to vote against their own interests in electing the GOP to be the majority party in this country: grievance. Republican voters won’t bat an eye when the Congress in 2020 fails to take up an investigation of the Bidens because those voters are conditioned to understand that this is all about winning. The lack of an investigation won’t matter because they’ll have won — they’ll have staved off the impeachment of Trump, who was being attacked by people who hated him. People who hated them. 

Photos in order: Carter for president, ‘76 at Pinkie’s in our new home of Savannah. A monument to the Confederate dead in nearby Forsyth Park. Sunset from a few thousand feet over the city’s west side. The new direction I briefly mentioned in my August post closing out my tenure as an immigration reporter is nearly upon us. More on that in a post in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading.