"Sheer coincidence": Trump's loyal supporters react with a similar refrain to indictment

Former President Donald Trump's announcement Thursday evening that he had been indicted immediately triggered a similarly-worded, lockstep narrative of Twitter missives offering defense-by-deflection on the part of his most hard-right GOP congressional supporters in Florida that was then reflexively parroted by conservative media.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Pensacola Republican, tweeted that the indictment "is an attempt to distract the American public from the millions of dollars in bribes that the Biden Crime Family received from foreign nationals."

Further south along the Gulf coast, freshman U.S. Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-St. Petersburg, tweeted a similar missive — at almost the same time. She wrote that the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability had earlier been "shown a document by the FBI showing evidence that Biden and his son were each paid $5 million dollars by a foreign national the DOJ indicts Trump. Coincidental? I think not."

And even farther to her south, U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, soon fired off his own message employing the nearly identical language in saying that on "the day members of Congress learn from an FBI document" about then-Vice President Joe Biden to receiving a $5 million "pay-for-play scheme" from Ukrainian energy conglomerate Burisma, "another phony indictment of the leading candidate" for the GOP presidential nomination is revealed.

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On Friday morning, Trump issued another statement on the indictment mirroring that line. He wrote that it was "not coincidental that the indictment" followed news of a $5 million "pay-to-play scheme" and was an "attempt to distract from the revelation that Biden was bribed by foreign nationals."

The veneer of certainty in the statements is contradicted by reality: The Biden-Ukraine corruption claims have not been substantiated. President Joe Biden has called them "malarkey," and even the tipster who passed along the initial allegation reportedly could not vouch for its truthfulness.

And by Friday afternoon, once the 37-count indictment was unsealed, the entire narrative faded as the public and media discourse singularly focused on the indictment's details and photographs alleging Trump's mishandling and reckless storage of some of the nation's most sensitive and protected intelligence, military and security secrets.

Still, a longtime political watcher said it demonstrated how politicians can use mass communication tools to tailor their own version of events, even if founded on the skimpiest factuality, to legions of loyal followers willing to believe them.

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And, said Kevin Wagner, professor and chair of the Department of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University, it is a textbook example of the power of how social media is employed to accomplish that task.

"Social media allows politicians to shape their own story outside the gatekeeping function of traditional media," he said.

"Historically they would have had to sell this line, this story, to a media outlet with evidence and some level of journalistic requirements in order to run the story about whatever is happening in the Ukraine or the things with Biden. But because they basically control their own media outlets, there is no gatekeeping function, and they can put stories and ideas out there and push them to their followers without any real fact-check of any of them."

Charles L. Zelden, a history and political science professor at Nova Southeastern University, added that the timing of Trump's announcement is what was critical — so he could "control the narrative" on the indictment.

"It's the power of messaging," Zelden said. "What you have is a means of immediate response to large groups of people through social media. Those who use it know this.

"There's a reason why Trump announced he was being indicted. He wanted to control the narrative. He wanted to make sure, he wanted the word to get out, not from the prosecutors, or some reporter. He wanted to announce it."

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Allegation that Biden accepted a bribe is based on a tip that reportedly 'wasn't substantiated'

Republican members of the House Oversight panel have spent the better part of this month clamoring to view a document purporting to reveal that Biden, while vice president, accepted a bribe from a foreign source.

The accusation is not documented, but rather was verbal a tip from a human source and dates back to 2020 when Trump was in the White House and William Barr headed the Justice Department. Barr has claimed an investigation was begun, and insisted this week that it had not been "terminated" while he was U.S. attorney general. Also this week, NBC News reported, citing a "senior law enforcement official," that the FBI and a prosecutor "reviewed the allegation" at the time three years ago "but it wasn't substantiated."

On Monday, the ranking member of the Oversight panel, Maryland Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin, issued a lengthy, detailed statement after joining the committee's Republican chairman, James Comer of Kentucky, in a review of the 2020 document and an interview with an FBI official about the allegation and the federal agency's review of it.

Rankin's statement said the source of the allegation was a "highly credible" FBI informant who got the information, verbally, from unidentified Ukrainians. The source, however, told the FBI he could neither verify nor vouch for the "veracity" of the information, according to Rankin's statement.

Raskin concluded Republicans' raising of the allegation now is "recycling stale and debunked Burisma conspiracy theories long peddled by Rudy Giuliani and a Russian agent, sanctioned by former President Trump’s own Treasury Department, as part of the effort to smear President Biden and help Mr. Trump’s reelection campaign."

On Wednesday, Barr disputed part of Raskin's version of events in telling The Federalist that that the probe into the alleged bribe was referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Delaware.

There are two other Oversight Committee members from Florida, U.S. Reps. Maxwell Frost of Orlando and Jared Moskowitz, whose district includes swaths of Palm Beach County. A spokesperson for Moskowitz said the congressman is set to review the documents on Monday, and shared Raskin's statement in the meantime. The Palm Beach Post has reached out to Frost as well.

Trump and Ukraine could fill a history book. But conservative media picked up the bribery accusation narrative.

Former president Donald Trump arrives at court on April 4, 2023, in New York City. Trump was indicted again Thursday, this time by a federal grand jury over his possession of government and classified documents.
Former president Donald Trump arrives at court on April 4, 2023, in New York City. Trump was indicted again Thursday, this time by a federal grand jury over his possession of government and classified documents.

The allegation came within a year of an effort by Trump, Giuliani and a Boca Raton resident, Lev Parnas, to promote a corruption accusation against Biden, his family and Burisma. In July 2019, Trump phoned Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and pressed him to launch an investigation of Biden, who was at the time the leading Democratic candidate for president.

Trump said the phone call was "perfect," but when his administration withheld military aid from Ukraine, which remained under the threat of Russian aggression, a whistleblower report sparked a congressional investigation that resulted in Trump's first impeachment as president. At the time, Trump's top national security aide, John Bolton, derided Giuliani's plan as a "drug deal."

Ukrainian officials did not comply with Trump's request, and the military equipment was ultimately delivered. In February 2020, Trump was acquitted after an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate in which a majority of its members voted guilty but the total fell short of the constitutionally required number to take action against Trump.

On Thursday night, conservative opinion programs picked up on the 2020 allegation.

"Let's not forget the 2016 allegation of bribery against Joe Biden," Sean Hannity said early in his program.

Hannity pointed to a foxnews.com story citing a source the website said detailed conversations with a Burisma executive who said he "had to pay the Bidens"; otherwise it would be hard to enter the U.S. market. But these payments were not made directly to Biden but navigated through "so many bank accounts" that investigators would not be able to "unravel this for at least 10 years," Hannity reported.

"Yet as far as we know, the DOJ is not pursuing a case against Joe Biden, Hunter Biden, the big guy or anybody," Hannity said. "We've said it often. There's no equal justice. There's no equal application of our laws. There's one set of rules for Democrats, another set of rules for Donald Trump and conservatives, and anybody especially in his orbit."

Speaking on Laura Ingraham's program an hour later, Miranda Devine, a New York Post columnist, picked up the story.

"This is devastating to the president. It should be devastating," she said of the bribery claim. "But of course they've just brought out this shiny object to make all the media look over there."

Later, while interviewing Georgia Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, also on the Oversight Committee, Ingraham joked that the timing was a stunning "coincidence."

"So the reporting would be then, if this were true, that the Burisma scheme is confirmed, then Trump is indicted, I'm sure it's just a coincidence this all just happened," Ingraham said. "Sheer coincidence."

Antonio Fins is a politics and business editor at the Palm Beach Post, part of the USA TODAY Florida Network. You can reach him at afins@pbpost.comHelp support our journalism. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Trump Florida Republicans cite Biden bribe allegation after indictment