The lies have it: Republicans abandon truth in Trump impeachment defence

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Patrick Semansky/AP

“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four,” George Orwell wrote in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. “If that is granted, all else follows.”

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The pro-Donald Trump industrial complex has not yet denied basic arithmetic. But as impeachment looms, his allies appear to be waging an increasingly frantic political and media counter-offensive that puts truth itself in the dock.

A bewildering array of fake news, warped facts and conspiracy theories have been propagated in the past week by conservative media, Republican politicians, White House officials and the president in his own defence. It is, commentators say, a concerted disinformation war, intended to crowd out damaging revelations as the House of Representatives prepares its ultimate sanction.

“The more facts come out, the more desperate they get,” said Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman and senior adviser on the House oversight committee. “They know in a debate centred on facts, truth and reality, they lose. Their only mechanism to survive is to muddy the waters, distort, distract and hope if they repeat lies often enough, they become real.”

Trump this week became the only fourth US president to face articles of impeachment. The two against him charge him with abuse of power by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations that would boost his 2020 re-election campaign, and obstruction of Congress by ordering witnesses to defy subpoenas.

These guys are in an abusive relationship with Trump … They behave the way you see victims of domestic violence behave

Rick Wilson

At public hearings and in countless media interviews, Republicans sought to argue that Trump was, in fact, justified in seeking the two investigations: one into whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 the presidential election, the other into a Ukrainian gas company with ties to Hunter Biden, the son of potential 2020 rival Joe Biden.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, even flew to Ukraine with the ardently pro-Trump One America News Network (OANN) to interview officials for a “docu-series”. The Wall Street Journal reported that when Giuliani got back to New York last week, the president called him on the runway and demanded: “What did you get?”

The former New York mayor reportedly replied: “More than you can imagine.”

Giuliani visited Trump at the White House on Friday.

The entire US intelligence community has found no evidence to support the claim of Ukrainian interference in 2016. Fiona Hill, formerly top Russia expert at the White House, has warned that to spread “the fictional narrative” is to spread Russian propaganda and do the bidding of Vladimir Putin. Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, said this week there was “no indication” that Ukraine interfered.

Yet several Republican senators continue to peddle this counter-narrative. Last Sunday Ted Cruz, runner-up to Trump in the 2016 primary, told NBC’s Meet the Press: “Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election.”

Host Chuck Todd’s eyebrows shot up with surprise.

“Senator, this sort of strikes me as odd,” he said, noting how Trump viciously went after Cruz during the primary campaign, questioning his birthplace and religion and insulting his wife.

Doug Collins speaks during a House judiciary committee hearing. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

But Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist and author of Everything Trump Touches Dies, said: “I’m not surprised at Ted Cruz being sycophantic to Trump. Trump broke Ted Cruz a long time ago. The Republicans have the worst political Stockholm syndrome we’ve ever seen.

“These guys are all in an abusive relationship with Trump. I don’t mean that in a flippant way. They behave the way you see victims of domestic violence behave. But they’ve got culpability in this thing: they’re not just victims, they’re enablers.”

Wilson noted there is no punishment for Trump’s allies.

“There are no consequences for being untruthful. It’s become a feature, not a bug. The audience expects them to lie. There’s a certain liberty in not having a conscience and being able to lie about anything and watch Trump blow stuff up. Trump revels in paying the joker and they revel in him playing that role.”

Republicans have also worked hard to justify Trump’s demand for an investigation into Biden. All week they continued to push for Hunter to appear as a witness, even though there is no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. On Thursday, Matt Gaetz of Florida presented an amendment to the impeachment articles that would replace a reference to investigations into Joe Biden with “the true topic of the investigation, Burisma and Hunter Biden”.

If Fox News did not exist, the Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories would not be tenable or possible

Kurt Bardella

Another Republican defence hinges on political tribalism. Full of righteous indignation, they claim Democrats had been plotting to impeach Trump all along and so the inquiry is a “sham”. Doug Collins, the top Republican on the House judiciary committee, said Democrats “can’t get over the fact Donald Trump is president of the United States and they don’t have a candidate that they think can beat him”.

‘It is incredible’

The impeachment inquiry is not the only glimpse into Trump and his allies’ parallel universe. This week saw the release of a justice department inspector general report that debunked the conspiracy theory that the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias. The report quoted the FBI deputy general counsel as saying: “The FBI would have been derelict in our responsibility had we not opened the case.”

Trump’s long-held contention that the Russia investigation was a hoax and witch-hunt was demolished before his eyes. Yet his first response from the White House came from a parallel universe in which up is down and two plus two equals five.

“The IG report just came out, and I was just briefed on it, and it’s a disgrace what’s happened with respect to the things that were done to our country,” he told reporters.

“It should never again happen to another president. It is incredible. Far worse than I would have ever thought possible. And it’s an embarrassment to our country. It’s dishonest. It’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

Trump turned to Pam Bondi, a special adviser on impeachment and former Florida attorney general to whom he once donated. Like Cruz, she did not disappoint.

“You know, so many of us who are career law enforcement today are outraged,” she said. “And I think the American people really should be terrified that this could happen to you when we’re supposed to live in a society of integrity and honesty.”

Sometimes, Trump just makes stuff up. At a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania, he made the baseless allegation that the former FBI agent Peter Strzok needed a restraining order against ex-colleague Lisa Page when their affair ended. The couple’s anti-Trump text messages are a favourite Republican talking point.

A member of the audience holds up a sticker as Donald Trump speaks in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Tom Brenner/Reuters

“This poor guy, did I hear he needed a restraining order after this whole thing, to keep him away from Lisa?” Trump asked the crowd. “I don’t know if it’s true, the fake news will never report it, but it could be true.”

Page tweeted: “This is a lie. Nothing like this ever happened. I wish we had a president who knew how to act like one. SAD!”

‘The attorney general is a Fox News bot’

The president has found another useful enabler in Bill Barr, the attorney general, who joined him in dismissing most of the inspector general’s findings and promising that his handpicked prosecutor, John Durham, will have the final word.

Jeffrey Toobin, a lawyer and legal analyst, told CNN: “The attorney general of the United States is a Fox News bot. And it’s an outrage. [Barr] keeps demanding investigation after investigation until he gets the results that he wants? That’s something that happens in the Soviet Union, not in the United States.”

Trump has far more tools at his disposal than Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton did when facing impeachment in the 1970s and 90s. No matter how outlandish, his assertions are amplified and seldom questioned by loyal hosts on Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News network.

Bardella said: “If Fox News did not exist, the Republican embrace of wild conspiracy theories would not be tenable or possible. They are the editorial centre of the Republican party now.”

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This is further augmented by social media. Under the headline “Fact-based impeachment can’t penetrate the pro-Trump Web”, the Washington Post highlighted how Friday’s impeachment hearing was watched by a private Facebook group with more than 75,000 members under the banner “The Trump deplorables”.

It reported: “The defense mounted by Trump’s allies made perfect sense to those following live on social media, in groups sealed off from general scrutiny, where facts are established by volume, and confirmation comes from likes. The effect of social media is to jack up the tenor of everything.”

This calibrated, multi-pronged Republican assault has left the nation in what some call a state of “truth decay” as all sense of shared reality breaks down. The tactics offer a chilling preview of how the president intends to fight next year’s election.

Bardella said: “We have one chance to return to a certain amount of normality and respect. Much more than Donald Trump is on the ballot, fact and truth and our democratic way of life are on the ballot.”