President Donald Trump isn’t the most polished speaker to occupy the Oval Office, but he’s peerless when it comes to rhetorical jujitsu.
His handling of the impeachment inquiry launched by House Democrats is just the latest example of Trump trying to turn his faults into strengths, and his critics’ accusations into a weapon to use against them. It’s a high-octane version of whataboutism, perpetually shifting the public’s focus away from Trump’s own questionable acts onto his opponents’ (real or imagined) faults.
The House inquiry was triggered by a complaint from a whistleblower that Trump had pressured Ukraine’s new leader to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, who had a lucrative post on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Late Thursday night, the House released text messages from U.S. diplomats suggesting that they were instructed to tell Ukrainian officials that Trump would give President Volodymyr Zelenskiy the military aid and presidential audience he coveted only if the Bidens were investigated.
The Trump administration had initially withheld the whistleblower’s complaint from lawmakers, only to have it brought to light by the intelligence community’s inspector general. Trying to strong-arm a foreign ally dependent on U.S. aid to help one’s re-election campaign, and then concealing a complaint about that act from Congress, reeks of an abuse of power.
True to form, Trump hasn’t denied asking Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens. Speaking to reporters Thursday, he even put forward the same request to the Chinese government, with whom the United States is locked in difficult trade negotiations to end a damaging trade war.
The message from Trump was that the issue isn’t his behavior in office, it’s Joe Biden’s. The real whistleblower here isn’t some unidentified intelligence officer; in Trump’s mind, it’s Trump. And the ends – exposing supposed corrupt acts by the Bidens – transform the means – using the presidency in a way that serves the interests of one man, Donald J. Trump – from a potentially impeachable offense to an act worthy of commendation.
Punch, meet counterpunch. As Trump put it in a November 2012 tweet, “When someone attacks me, I always attack back ... except 100x more. This has nothing to do with a tirade but rather, a way of life!”
What makes Trump’s style distinctive is his habit of projecting his own flaws and perceived weaknesses onto his critics.
Sometimes it takes a childish, “I know you are, but what am I?” form. One example is from the Oct. 16, 2016, presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton said he’d be a puppet for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump replied, “No puppet. You’re the puppet.”
Other times it’s more sophisticated. To try to counter the evidence that Russians meddled in the 2016 campaign on Trump’s behalf, the president and his minions have pushed the theory that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the FBI counterintelligence probe that preceded it were the fruits of collusion among Democrats, the Clinton campaign and Russian operatives. Alternatively, they’ve argued that Ukrainians allied with the Democrats planted the evidence implicating Russians in the theft of emails from Democratic National Committee servers.
Like any good conspiracy theorist, Trump ties his accusations to nuggets of truth – about the so-called Steele dossier, for instance, or Hunter Biden. But layered upon those nuggets is a heaping helping of fantasy and provably false speculation. The Steele dossier didn’t trigger the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference. Murdered Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was not the source who supplied the committee’s emails to WikiLeaks. The DNC’s server is not being stored in Ukraine by a Ukrainian millionaire. The ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor sought by Joe Biden (and numerous European leaders) did not cut short a corruption investigation into his son’s company, a point that an audit by the Ukraine’s new top prosecutor should make clear.
The challenge for the public is to distinguish between legitimate questions and smokescreens – or flat-out lies.
Making sure the FBI followed proper procedures in launching the Russia meddling probe and surveilling some figures involved in the Trump campaign falls into the legitimate category. That subject is being pursued both by the Justice Department’s inspector general and U.S. Atty. John Durham in Connecticut, two respected nonpartisan figures, although the independence of Durham’s probe has been clouded by the intercessions of Trump and his attorney general-turned-apologist, William Barr.
On the other hand, Trump’s suggestion that the president is obliged to lean on allies to get them to investigate bogus claims of corruption by one of his top political rivals is a blatantly false smokescreen thrown up to hide an apparent abuse of power. So is arguing that there’s nothing amiss about him asking a “favor” of an ally desperately in need of the military aid that Trump had just put on hold.
This is deception masquerading as virtue. Voters should not let themselves be thrown by it.