In the past day or so, Republicans have started to coalesce around strategy for defending the phone call in which Donald Trump told the president of Ukraine that his country wasn’t being “reciprocal” enough about U.S. aid and that Ukraine needed to launch a corruption investigation of Joe Biden. This strategy has two prongs:
• Asserting that the U.S. president has not only the right but the obligation to ask other countries to investigate high-level corruption such as Biden allegedly took part in in Ukraine. (Here is Mike Pence making this argument on Thursday.)
• Accusing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff of personally contriving and orchestrating the scandal. (Here is Trump doing that on Wednesday.)
These points are instantly debunkable. Biden’s work in Ukraine made the Ukrainian company his son was involved with more likely to be prosecuted, and nothing Schiff has said or done in the last two weeks has been anywhere near as incriminating of the president as the call summary the White House released itself.
Still, they have the potential to be effective. They put strain on the media outlets that consider themselves obligated to give both parties’ points of view a respectful airing, or those that evaluate political rhetoric on the basis of its novelty and buzzworthiness rather than its truth value. And they trickle down to voters, who see a seesaw battle between partisans on the news and conclude that hell, they’re all crooked. Already, pluralities of respondents to one national poll supported impeachment proceedings and said that Biden should be investigated.
On Friday, though, the GOP Ratchets Up Pressure on Biden and Schiff narrative train got derailed a bit. One blow was delivered by CNBC’s Eamon Javers, who asked Trump the simple question of which other cases of alleged corruption he is pursuing besides the one that involves his potential 2020 election opponent. In reply, Javers got what by Trump standards is a straight-up acknowledgment of having been stumped:
Then Republican Utah Sen. Mitt Romney articulated the implication of that non-answer in what, by Romney standards, was a devastating frontal attack:
Romney is stating the obvious: All the available evidence—including the evidence supplied by Trump—says the president tried to use Ukraine to do a political hit job for him; none of the evidence supports the alternative theory that this was part of an earnest anti-corruption crusade. But the fact that Romney is the one who stated it provides a tiller for evenhanded journalists and non-zealot voters to hold amid the swirling storm of alternate reality disinformation that the rest of his party is emitting.
Thanks, Mitt Romney!