How to Tell If Trump Is Winning

The president is turning to the same strategies he used against Robert Mueller to fend off Congress.

Donald Trump waves to the crowd during a campaign rally.
Tom Brenner / Reuters

As the impeachment inquiry gains steam, President Donald Trump and his defenders are running their old playbook. It’s not a good playbook. It wasn’t all that convincing the first time around. But it worked once—and the modern Republican Party doesn’t have a lot of imagination for new arguments. And what the heck—if something was good enough for the Russia investigation, why wouldn’t it be good enough for, as House Intelligence Committee Ranking Member Devin Nunes so rudely put it, “the low-rent Ukrainian sequel”?

The Trump defensive playbook has a few distinctive plays. There’s the allegation of a deep-state conspiracy. The demonization of an individual career official. The assertion that the relevant investigation was conceived in sin and is hopelessly tainted by it. The focus on throwing handfuls of spaghetti at the wall, rather than stitching together a coherent alternative narrative. And the radical refusal to see forests for their constituent trees.

The first play is that most familiar of presidential obsessions: the claim that an unelected deep state has been hell-bent on undermining first Trump’s 2016 campaign and then his presidency. Career government officials, in this story, have turned their immense power and tradecraft against the president, who is battling valiantly against the attempted coup from within his own government. The Russia-investigation version of this narrative had the deep state working with Barack Obama’s administration to engineer the appearance of Russian election interference and the Trump campaign’s collusion with it—and spying on the Trump campaign in the process. These days, if you listen to the president, the deep state is responsible for the legal troubles of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and the emergence of the whistle-blower complaint regarding Trump’s conduct on Ukraine that kick-started the impeachment inquiry.

The whistle-blower, who retains his hard-fought anonymity, is the perfect representative of the deep state: nameless, shadowy, and working for the most spooky and least public of federal agencies, the CIA. In an accusation that recalls his meritless insistence that Obama had his “wires tapped,” Trump has called the whistle-blower “almost a spy,” and Sean Hannity has suggested that the unnamed CIA analyst committed a crime by “surveilling the president.”

This leads to the second defense. Every conspiracy, after all, needs a villain. In the Russia case, the president and his allies seized on the public release of text messages between the FBI agent Peter Strzok and the FBI lawyer Lisa Page that expressed negative views of Trump, arguing that Strzok’s key role in beginning the Russia investigation meant that the entire probe was nothing more than an outgrowth of the agent’s personal distaste for candidate and then President Trump. The president’s focus on the person of the whistle-blower is best understood as an effort to create a new Strzok—to put a face on the deep state, so to speak, and create a particular villain at whom his supporters can direct their ire.

“Strzok started the illegal Rigged Witch Hunt,” Trump wrote on Twitter last year, in a representative complaint. “Why isn’t this so-called ‘probe’ ended immediately?” Thus does the figure of the single villainous official play into the third defensive tactic: the insistence that any one tainted aspect of the investigation necessarily taints all others. The insistence on Strzok’s bias and that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign leads to the insistence that the entire investigation is defective—even if no evidence has been produced that the agent’s view of Trump affected the FBI’s work. Likewise, the use of the controversial Steele dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant against the former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page means that the whole warrant is tainted—no matter that the dossier was one piece of evidence among many and that independent judges signed off on the warrant four times.

This reasoning was always strained, but it’s particularly absurd as applied to the Ukraine matter. The attempt to make a demon out of the whistle-blower is a complete non sequitur. While Strzok really did play a major role in the Russia investigation, the whistle-blower was reporting on preexisting concerns communicated to him by other officials, and the witnesses called before Congress have corroborated his report at every turn. The whistle-blower was a tipster, not an investigator. It’s a bit strange to complain about the fruit of the poison tree when the supposed poison was tilled into the soil well after the tree bore fruit.

Perhaps for this reason, while Trump has insisted on focusing on the whistle-blower, congressional Republicans have also used procedural complaints about the impeachment inquiry to make their case of original sin. Their efforts have not been particularly coherent. “A due process starts at the beginning,” argued House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, dismissing new procedures for the impeachment inquiry voted on by the House. “It doesn’t affirm a mis-sham investigation all the way through. If you were in a legal term, it would be the fruit from the poisonous tree.”

But the incoherence doesn’t really matter. During both the Russia investigation and the current scandal, the goal of the president’s defenders is less to spin a consistent story and more to throw up smoke. Nunes is the maestro of this technique: His mysterious memo alleging surveillance abuse in the winter of 2018 had the effect of seeding confusing conspiracy theories that grabbed press headlines, even though they never held together. These days, anyone watching the impeachment hearings has been treated to similar efforts by Republican questioners, who seem mostly interested in chasing down obscure and nonsensical theories about supposed Ukrainian election interference in 2016. These theories crumple under even the slightest scrutiny. But they sound ominous on television and distract attention from the allegations of wrongdoing against Trump—which is the real point.

Sometimes, the president’s defenders don’t seem to remember which scandal they are defending against; so completely have the playbooks merged that the defenses merge substantively, as well. Nunes opened both hearings last week with complaints about the Steele dossier—his equivalent of playing back golden oldies from the good old Russia days. There’s no connection between the dossier and the Ukraine scandal, but that hasn’t stopped him from bringing back the greatest hits. The goal is to confuse, after all. At times, this approach has led to amusing self-parody. During the closed deposition of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Republican Representative Scott Perry asked if the ambassador had ever “request[ed] unmasking of any individuals”—a reference to a Nunes obsession dating back to the spring of 2017. Yovanovitch, confused, asked, “What does it mean?”

Most important, the playbook depends on radically disaggregating the constituent components of the allegations against the president. In the Russia scandal, that meant focusing narrowly on the specific incidents and never allowing that they were connected in a fashion that told a larger story. The Trump Tower meeting, at which people presenting themselves as representatives of the Russian government offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton to the president’s son, son-in-law, and campaign chair, didn’t amount to collusion, because the meeting was a bust and the dirt never materialized. The negotiations over a Trump Tower Moscow deal, taking place through most of the campaign and lied about by the president’s representatives of his administration, did not amount to anything either.

The multiple campaign aides charged with lying about their contacts with Russian officials or cutouts were, well, just isolated things that happened. The more than 100 pages of meetings and contacts detailed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report merely described individual incidents in which people met with other people who happened to be from Russia. The aggregate pattern, which so clearly described a campaign and business probed on all sides by Russia and its agents at a time the country was actively intervening in the 2016 election, was an evil from which eyes and ears could be diverted and about which Republican mouths did not speak.

Something similar is happening today: a refusal to acknowledge the whole story by instead adopting a dismissive attitude toward its constituent pieces—and refusing to see those pieces as connected to one another. There is nothing wrong with the specific text of the call transcript, we are told, or at least no quid pro quo reflected within its four corners. The president has the authority to remove an ambassador, we are told, for any reason, at any time. If the president asked for investigations, that simply reflects his concern about corruption, we are told, and Ukraine is a very corrupt place. If Trump held up military aid to Ukraine, we are told, well, the president is known to be a skeptic of foreign aid. And if a parade of earnest public servants, in depositions or in public hearings, testifies as to the connective tissue among all these elements—that there clearly was a linkage between acts of U.S. statecraft and Ukrainian willingness to announce investigations of the president’s foes—they are merely repeating second- or thirdhand hearsay or expressing policy disagreements with the president. Once again, the larger story goes unaddressed.

Is it going to work—again? That may depend on how we define working in the first place. If working means being remotely convincing to a person who spends any time with the evidence, then no, it will not work. But the playbook in that sense didn’t work the last go-around either. Relatively few people who have actually read the Mueller report, for example, doubt that Trump obstructed justice—and most readers, we venture to guess, didn’t emerge with the sense that the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia and its agents were all on the up-and-up.

But the goal of the playbook is not to convince the careful reader of the evidence. It’s not even aimed at the swing voter. The purpose of the playbook, rather, is to keep intact that narrow political coalition on which Trump’s power rests. He was elected with 46 percent of the popular vote and an Electoral College majority that depended on razor-thin victories in a few states. What keeps him in power today is the commitment of his voting base to him, and the fear congressional Republicans have of upsetting that voting base by abandoning Trump.

So the real definition of working is twofold: first, being sufficiently convincing to Trump’s core voters that it remains politically perilous for Republican members of either house of Congress to contemplate defecting; and second, being sufficiently convincing to those same core voters that Trump remains electorally viable in a campaign broadly similar to the one he ran before.

It is too soon to tell whether the playbook is working, in this narrow sense. The stability of the president’s approval ratings, which have not tanked since the impeachment process began, suggests that, at a minimum, it is not not working—at least not yet. The playbook may be even more implausible intellectually than it was the first time around. It may be infuriating. And it is certainly demagogic and immoral in its deceit and slander. But it has played an effective role in Trump’s resilience to date. So why not try it again?