Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, opened today with a statement attacking media reporting on the Trump administration. He singled out six stories for attack.
One of them was retracted by its publisher, CNN—a form of corporate responsibility never seen from a White House notorious for emitting six false statements in a single morning. Another was an opinion piece in New York magazine by Jonathan Chait that did not claim to report news, but instead built known facts into a damning narrative of Donald Trump’s Russia connection. The other four range from the exaggerated to the unverified to the apparently mistaken.
But let’s take a closer look at those errors and what they mean. One of the stories singled out by Nunes was published by BuzzFeed News. That story asserted that Trump had explicitly directed his then–personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow project. Cohen would ultimately testify to Congress that Trump’s direction was implicit, not explicit.
The distinction between explicit and implicit certainly matters. But Nunes wants to use BuzzFeed’s error to insinuate that Trump was somehow the victim of a false claim. Nunes is here spreading a bigger untruth than any mistake by any news source.
Underlying all the reporting about Cohen was a massive lie by Donald Trump. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly insisted that he had not done business in Russia “in years.” Trump issued highly specific denials on July 26, October 9, and October 26 of that year. He denied any Russian business connections in the year after the election, too, on January 11, February 16, and May 11. In fact, as abundant written evidence corroborates, Trump was actively pursuing a Trump Tower Moscow project all through the first year of his presidential campaign, from summer 2015 until the deal collapsed in summer 2016. Trump was seeking a huge payday from the Russian state while he was running to head the American state, a story broken by The Washington Post on August 27, 2017.
Nunes can complain about this story, but it has since been corroborated by the haul of text and other evidence uncovered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Trump lied about the deal again and again, on Twitter and from his own lips. For Nunes to suggest that Trump was somehow a victim of false reporting on the Trump Tower Moscow project is to endorse that lying.
Nunes knew that his intended audience would not bother to review the history as you and I just did. Nunes is not interested in talking with anyone who is interested in checking claims, or verifying statements. He is talking only with people locked into a closed and sealed knowledge system.
This closed knowledge system entraps millions of Americans in a universe of untruth, in which Trump is a victim and the allegations against him are “fake news.” The prisoners and victims of this system live in a dreamworld of lies. Yet it would not quite be accurate to describe them as uninformed. They are disinformed, and on a huge scale. The false-knowledge system supported by Nunes is closed and sealed, but also vast and intricate.
The Ukraine allegation against President Trump is simple and straightforward. It can all be summarized in a few sentences of plain English: Trump wanted dirty help for his 2020 reelection campaign. He sent messages demanding that dirty help to the Ukrainians directly on the phone and via his henchmen. He stalled military aid to extort the help. The Ukrainians nearly surrendered, until the whistle-blower report reached Congress on September 9 and knocked loose the aid on September 11.
Now watch Fox News or read the pro-Trump websites. Suddenly the story becomes very long and very complicated. It can hardly be summarized at all; it can only be alluded to indirectly by a litany of callout phrases: “Burisma.” “Hunter Biden.” “Where’s the whistle-blower?” “Vindman’s conflict of interests.” “Star chamber.” “#coup has started.” The intricate tale is animated by a burning rage of injustice against “fake news”—most of that “fake news” (like the story about Trump Tower Moscow) in fact true and corroborated.
The accusations against Trump are direct and intelligible to any open mind. The defense of Trump resembles the Star Wars saga: a universe of storytelling, in multiple parts, much of it comprehensible only if you venture beyond the visual franchise to a huge appendix of fan fiction and Wikipedia pages.
The House Republicans’ underlying argument is too jumbled and confusing even to be agreed with. It can only be absorbed. It is to be repeated, not to be analyzed. It is not even really an argument at all. It is a hypnotic litany, a creed of faith—a faith all the more compelling for defying sense and experience.
At Fox News, on talk radio, and on the web, American conservatives have built a communications system that effectively consolidates in-group identity. Much of the time, the talkers and listeners do not themselves understand what they are saying. They use key words and phrases as gang signs: badges of identity that are recognized without necessarily being understood.
This system of communication tightly bonds in-group members. That bond, in turn, exerts tremendous power over American politics.
The price paid for this achievement is that the communications system lacks any means to convince nongroup members. How can you convince people when they cannot understand what on Earth you are talking about?
Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and the others have fenced off conservative Americans from the rest of American society. Within that safe space, insiders hear only what is familiar and comforting. When those protected insiders step outside into the larger world, they find themselves completely unprepared for it. To those not immersed in the fantasy franchise, people like Devin Nunes sound like crazy people. Which in turn, of course, only drives them crazier.
The job of Republican members of Congress at the hearing was not to win converts. Their job at the hearing was to enforce orthodoxy and punish heresy—not to convince, but to corral. They had better hope that enforcement will be enough, because enforcement is all they still know how to do.