The White House’s messaging throughout the impeachment process has been wildly inconsistent on nearly every count save one: Democrats are trying to overturn the 2016 election.
Other ideas have come and gone. President Donald Trump has insisted that he wasn’t pressuring foreign countries to intervene, and then done so again publicly. He has flip-flopped on what kind of trial he wants in the Senate. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney even changed his mind on whether there was a quid pro quo in the course of one afternoon.
Yet the claim of overturning has remained constant since shortly after Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, in late September. In a reply brief over the weekend, the president’s lawyers accused Democrats of a “brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election” and of “nullifying an election and subverting the will of the American people.” The White House team made the same point on the Senate floor yesterday during debate on the rules for the trial.
The notion of overturning the election has persisted because it is a powerful (though not to say true) piece of messaging. The sound bite is shorthand that is easily understood—or perhaps easily misleads. Most crucially, it provides a way for Trump and his allies to evade talking about the substance of the accusations against him. As the shifting stories the White House has told make clear, that is a very difficult task, and there were few substantive defenses of the president yesterday. If, however, the whole point is to subvert the will of the people, then it short-circuits all that debate.