It's been nearly two months since Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry into President Trump, and Republicans still haven't figured out a way to justify their predetermined conclusion: Trump is innocent. Their problem, of course, is the overwhelming evidence that Trump personally conducted an extortion and bribery scheme against Ukraine's political leadership. As the record clearly shows, he threatened to withhold military aid and promised a White House visit in order to strong-arm President Volodymyr Zelensky into backing Trump's false accusations against former Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic Party leaders.
On Tuesday morning, the Republicans unveiled their supposed impeachment defense strategy, which amounts to little more than a command that Trump's defenders in Congress keep a straight face while lying their heads off. GOP House leadership circulated a memo making flat-out laughable claims, such as the claim that the now-infamous July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky "shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure," even though Trump literally says, "I would like you to do us a favor though" immediately after Zelensky asks him to release aid that Congress had already authorized.
Admonishing people not to believe their lying eyes will work on Trump's supporters, of course, but it's unlikely to work quite so well on mainstream media sources, even those who are eager to bend over backwards to give credence to Republican lies in the name of "balance." So Trump is returning to the well that he's drawn from in the past: Trying to make this whole scandal about Biden, even though Biden was, along with Zelensky, the primary intended victim of this extortion scheme.
Trump went after it again Tuesday morning on Twitter, ranting semi-coherently about how he has "an 'obligation' to look into corruption, and Biden’s actions, on tape, about firing the prosecutor" and that both the former veep and his son, Hunter Biden, "should be forced to testify in this No Due Process Scam!"
This rant was a reference to the conspiracy theory about Biden that led to Trump's extortion scheme in the first place. For months, Trump and his lawyer, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani — with a crucial assist from New York Times reporter Ken Vogel — have been pushing the lie that Biden got a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son's business interests. In fact, Biden, working on behalf of President Obama and a coalition of Western leaders, called for the prosecutor to be fired because he allegedly wasn't doing enough about corruption among elite business interests in Ukraine. So basically, Biden did the opposite of what Trump is saying he did.
These accusations against Biden are just as false as everything else Trump and Republicans have said about Trump's behavior towards Ukraine. But Trump probably isn't wrong to believe that this particular lie will be more effective than the others.
Proclaiming that Trump is completely innocent isn't going to work. He's just too obviously guilty. But voters, especially those who are already inclined to support Trump, are open to the narrative that all politicians are corrupt and their hero is being singled out for unfair reasons. And the mainstream media — always suckers for a "both sides do it" story, no matter how untrue it is — are easy to manipulate into propping up such a narrative.
By repeatedly making false allegations against Biden, Trump makes sure that such accusations continue to be included in mainstream news reporting as the impeachment inquiry unfolds. And while mainstream journalists know full well that Trump is lying, the traditional reluctance to say so directly means that the accusations will be reprinted without describing them as lies. Instead, weasel language about how "there's no evidence" for the allegations will be included. Only rarely will journalist delve deeply into why the allegations against Biden are false, because doing so takes up precious space in articles that are supposed to be short enough to grab the eyeballs of attention-addled audiences.
And that's the best case scenario. Troublingly, there's evidence that Trump's constant repetition of lies about Biden is causing some mainstream journalists to assume there must be some truth to the accusations. As Greg Sargent of the Washington Post noted on Monday, NBC News anchor Chuck Todd swallowed the bait and affirmed Trump's big Biden lie on "Meet the Press" over the weekend.
That happened when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., repeated Trump's scurrilous accusations against Biden. Instead of noting that these claims were false, Todd said, "So two wrongs make a right?"
Of course there aren't "two wrongs." There is only one wrong — the one Trump did, since the other one is a lie made up by Trump's minions to undermine a leading opponent. But Todd's reaction shows why Trump keeps pushing this lie: He knows it's easier for journalists to play along rather than go through the rigamarole of debunking this lie every time a Republican repeats it.
As much as it might be interesting to have an intellectual debate about whether two wrongs make a right, the reality is that many people, especially those already looking for a reason to continue supporting Trump, essentially do believe that. Or, at least, they're willing to accept that two wrongs means they can just blow off Trump's misbehavior in this instance.
If you talk to Trump supporters, you'll often find they don't actually try to defend their man, since that's impossible in the face of the overwhelming evidence against him. Instead, they tend to argue that all politicians are corrupt and Democrats are hypocrites and that liberals are just mad that they lost the 2016 election. This kind of argument serves two purposes: It justifies another vote for Trump, even in the full knowledge that he's a criminal, and it discourages people who do care about ending corruption into feel helpless and not voting at all.
For mainstream journalists craving a "both sides" narrative, Republican senators eager to justify their eventual vote to acquit Trump in an impeachment trial, and Republican voters sick of feeling bad about backing a criminal, the idea that Biden and Trump sorta, kinda did the same thing — leveraged the power of the White House against Ukraine for personal gain — will be extraordinarily seductive. The fact that Biden did no such thing won't much matter.
The false accusations against Biden will also help square an impossible circle: Trump keeps claiming that his call with Zelensky was "perfect," even though any fool who reads the transcript can see that he is threatening to withhold military aid until Zelensky publicly backs the lies about Biden.
What Republicans will now do is to claim that since Biden also made demands on Ukraine's leaders, Trump was only following in his footsteps. We already see that line coming from Rand Paul, who made this equation on "Meet the Press." The trick is leaving out the part where Biden's goal was entirely above board, and part of a global agenda to fight corruption and promote democracy, while Trump's goal was entirely corrupt, in that he was trying to force Zelensky to open a fake investigation in service to Trump's personal interests. But hey, they both made demands of Ukraine! That will be enough to draw a false equivalence.
The only question is how well this will work to snooker members of the public who are skeptical about Trump. Right now, about half of Americans support impeachment. But if the media, driven by a bizarre imperative to favor "balance" over truth, continues to elevate Republican lies about Biden, there is a not-small chance that many voters get confused by all the conflicting accusations and decide that this is all just a pointless political fight not worth getting worked up over.
Democrats can counter by trying to make the public hearings, which begin on Wednesday, as clear and sober-minded as possible. Republicans will try, at every turn, to turn things into a circus. But if Democrats can keep the focus on the hard evidence against Trump, they maybe able to overwhelm his efforts to turn public attention toward a conspiracy-theory sideshow built around false charges against Biden.