Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s disastrous press briefing on Thursday was a prime example of how the White House is struggling to explain President Donald Trump’s efforts in Ukraine in a way that isn’t tantamount to a confession. But Trump’s rally a few hours later in Dallas indicated the president isn’t doing a much better job.
Thursday night, Trump didn’t try to defend his efforts to cajole the Ukrainian government to undertake politically beneficial investigations — efforts that have prompted an impeachment inquiry. Instead, he made stuff up about House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff (D-CA), attacked a whistleblower whose core allegations have already been corroborated by the White House, and suggested his handpicked intelligence community inspector general is conspiring against him. None of these talking points can withstand the slightest bit of scrutiny.
Trump’s attacks on Schiff are at odds with reality
For weeks now, Trump has been lying about what happened during a September 26 House Intelligence Committee hearing featuring testimony from acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire.
Schiff opened that hearing by paraphrasing “the essence” of what Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during the fateful late-July phone call in which Trump used American military aid as leverage to get the Ukrainian government to undertake politicized investigations. Schiff’s approach wasn’t just unnecessary — the White House’s own summary of the call was damning enough — it was also an unfortunate one, as it provided Trump and his defenders with an opportunity to deflect from the substance of the scandal.
Side note: Adam Schiff’s decision to open the hearing with a fictional account of Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president was a bad idea and has already been used by two Republicans to criticize him. Here’s video of how Schiff framed things: pic.twitter.com/eURjf6grDL
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) September 26, 2019
Not only has Trump attacked Schiff over the incident, but he’s gone far further and absurdly characterized his paraphrasing as a criminal act that’s tantamount to treason. And on Thursday in Dallas, unloading on Schiff was one of the main talking points Trump used to frame the entire impeachment proceeding as a fraud.
“[Schiff] makes up my conversation which was perfect; he makes up my conversation,” Trump said. “He sees what I said — it doesn’t play well because it was perfect — so he made up a totally false conversations with the Ukrainian president. And we caught him cold. Everybody knew it anyway.”
“I want to get him before Congress, and I want to see what he has to say,” Trump added. “You know, they say he has immunity. Why do you have immunity for outright fraud? He’s a fraud!”
A couple things from Trump’s Dallas rally that reflect how he’s struggling to respond to the impeachment inquiry:
1) These comments about Schiff are delusional. They don’t reflect what happened at the hearing, & there’s video! But instead of defending himself on merits, he lies. pic.twitter.com/fIGfCH3WHh
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 18, 2019
Seeing as how there’s video of the hearing in question, Trump’s talking point represents an especially egregious effort at gaslighting the public. But since his actions are so hard to defend on the merits, gaslighting appears to be all Trump has.
Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower continue to entirely miss the point
After attacking Schiff, Trump turned his fire on the intelligence community whistleblower who first sounded the alarm about Trump’s dealings and the inspector general who found his account to be credible.
“The whistleblower got it all wrong! Who’s the whistleblower? Who’s the whistleblower?” Trump said. “We have to know. Is the whistleblower a spy? And who is the IG that did this? All he had to do is look at the tape, or look at what they wrote down — the transcribed version of the phone call — compare that to the whistleblower’s account, and you see if had nothing to do with it. So why did the IG allow a thing like this to happen to our country? Why? Why?”
2) In this single clip, Trump lies about Schiff, tries to turn impeachment into a referendum on the whistleblower even though whistleblower’s core allegations have already been corroborated, & suggests his hand-picked intel community IG is conspiring against him. Very weak stuff. pic.twitter.com/sWDdN0F2IN
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 18, 2019
But as I detailed weeks ago, Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower completely miss the point because his core allegations about the July call and the White House’s efforts to cover it up have already been corroborated by the White House itself. And the impeachment-related hearings that have been held in recent days with key players in the Ukraine saga have only further corroborated the whistleblower’s account about what happened during the call and the subsequent efforts to cover it up.
The fact of the matter is the whistleblower’s complaint has both proven to be broadly accurate, and it is also not central to public understanding of the Ukraine scandal. But instead of trying to explain the pattern that has emerged from House hearings, Trump is falling back on his familiar strategy of lashing out and making dark insinuations about deep-state conspiracies.
Along those lines, Trump’s insinuation that intelligence community Inspector General Michael Atkinson conspired against him is absurd on two fronts. First, Atkinson was appointed to his position by Trump in November 2017, so if the president doesn’t know who he is by now, he has nobody to blame but himself. Secondly, the House hearings have made it abundantly clear that Atkinson made the only reasonable judgment possible in finding the whistleblower complaint to be credible.
Despite the flimsiness of his anti-impeachment talking points, Trump’s Dallas audience ate them up, chanting “drain the swamp!” and booing on cue as Trump lambasted Democrats. While that might be enough for Trump’s base, it’s unlikely Trump will find many buyers of what he’s selling among the unconverted.
Indeed, during a CNN interview on Friday, Republican Rep. Francis Rooney (FL) indicated that he doesn’t find Trump’s explanations for why he tried to get the Ukrainian government to undertake politically useful investigations to be persuasive. He thinks House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “has a point” in linking Trump’s efforts to enlist Ukraine’s help in undercutting the Russia investigation to his ongoing, broader affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Rooney is just one House Republican, but his willingness to publicly rebuke the president suggests patience is growing thin with Trump’s unpersuasive efforts to defend the indefensible, even among the GOP rank and file.