The Justifying Trump’s Paranoia Defense

Republicans have been working hard to build two excuses for Trump—one for the zealots and one for people who sit closer to the middle.

Steve Castor leans over to listen to Devin Nunes.
Rep. Devin Nunes talks to counsel Steve Castor during Thursday’s impeachment inquiry hearing on Capitol Hill. Andrew Harrer - Pool/Getty Images

The president is delusional. That is not a radical statement anymore, except among the people who must lap up and then prop up his delusions in order to stay in power. If you have to do that, it seems the choice is to turn his delusion into cultlike religious zealotry (see Rick Perry and Nikki Haley who both see God’s hand in installing the president) or to build a world in which the delusion fits. That has been the totality of House Republicans’ defense in the open impeachment hearings this month—elaborate recitation and repetition of an incoherent set of talking points about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election and the bottomless sins of one Hunter Biden. The sole point of the mind-numbing repetition of this defense was to arrive at the place Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, got to on Sunday when he was able to lecture Fox News’ Chris Wallace on the fundamentally unknowable nature of 2016 election meddling.

Wallace played an audio clip of Trump insisting late last week that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the election. Then he asked Kennedy who he believed was to blame for hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign computers: Ukraine or Russia? “I don’t know, nor do you, nor do any others,” Kennedy answered.

This statement subverts everything the American government’s own intelligence agencies have concluded and announced over the past three years. There is no doubt that Russia tried to interfere with the election. And, on Monday night on CNN, Kennedy retracted all of it: “I was wrong,” Kennedy said. “The only evidence I have, and I think it’s overwhelming, is that it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer.” He added that he had “misheard” Wallace’s question and that he was still unwilling to rule out the possibility of Ukrainian interference as well. It seems that while the theory that Ukraine and not Russia sullied the 2016 election can bloom and thrive with Devin Nunes in the House Intelligence Committee, it must be pruned back to a mere possibility when it crosses the street to the Republican Senate. Either way, it’s Russian disinformation, serving Russian ends. How far is the GOP willing to go in servicing that narrative?

This calculation is the main question facing Mitch McConnell as he now plots the course of the likely impeachment trial in the Senate: Will he use the proceedings—at which Donald Trump is allowed to call witnesses and mount a robust defense—to perform the unsubstantiated conspiracy theory outlining Ukrainian interference, in three parts? Rick Hasen suggests that is exactly what the Republican plan is and that it will achieve precisely what Trump hoped a Volodymyr Zelensky announcement of a Ukrainian investigation of the Bidens and CrowdStrike would have accomplished (even if the investigation itself were never undertaken): “Trump was banking on the premise that it could be enough to sully someone’s reputation repeatedly through public attacks rather than to have to produce actual evidence to harden public opinion. Days of Senate hearings in which Trump lawyers lay out a case against Joe Biden or CrowdStrike will presumably get wall-to-wall coverage from major news outlets, further amplifying Trump’s lies against Biden and efforts to blame Ukraine and rehabilitate Russia for the 2016 election interference campaign.” If the House impeachment inquiry proved a natural experiment in conservative media’s capacity to sell an alternate reality to its viewers, there’s no reason to believe the Senate trial won’t be a sequel, but this time with Hunter Biden as star witness.

At that point, for some portion of America, all the frayed and disparate threads of Burisma and corruption and the Steele dossier will somehow be fused together into a coherent (enough) narrative. Joe Biden will be tarnished as the nominee. Trump will have to keep hoping that Biden becomes the nominee, because as a tactic, teaching the base that Biden is “corrupt” only works if he ends up on the ticket. But the larger project is to plant the John Kennedy fog machine notion that nothing is ever really knowable and also that you should always believe Donald Trump in the event of a tie.

Fostering uncertainty is only half the battle. There’s a second play here, one aimed at Americans who might be less predisposed to accept individual Rudy Giuliani–based conspiracy theories. We saw the first intimations of this secondary defense during the House intel hearings last week. The essential justification of Trump extorting Ukrainian investigations of his domestic political rivals will come down to a question about his state of mind. The assessment of whether he withheld a White House meeting and $390 million in appropriated assistance to Zelensky in exchange for the announcement of investigations thus turns on two things: Was he legitimately concerned about generalized “corruption” in Ukraine (Jeremy Stahl explains how this could not have been the case), and also was it reasonable for him to have concerns based on what he was hearing?

The claims about Ukraine and Alexandra Chalupa and Hunter Biden, as incoherent though they may be, work to help Trump’s impeachment defense. They conspire to suggest that even if Donald Trump was wrong, he was reasonable to believe that something nefarious was afoot in Ukraine in 2016. So long as the Ukraine meddling “conspiracy,” even if it merely consisted of a few individuals who disliked Trump, is construed as somewhat believable to someone, it will be used to defend Trump’s state of mind in demanding that it be investigated. That’s the story that was being built by GOP counsel, Steve Castor, from the first day of the hearings. Here he was asking George Kent, “it was reasonable for Trump to believe elements of the Ukrainian establishment were out to get him, correct?” The Kenneth Vogel 2017 Politico story, in Castor’s telling, “gives rise to some concern that there are elements of the Ukrainian establishment that were out to get the president.” “That’s a very reasonable belief of [Trump’s], correct?” asked Castor.

In questioning Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Castor was at it again: He brought up two Kenneth Vogel articles to suggest that “influential elements of the Ukrainian establishment” were out to get Trump. Yovanovitch correctly dismissed these as “isolated incidents” of private citizens expressing their political preferences, not a government-orchestrated initiative that sought to undermine American elections. “I would remind you again that our intelligence community has determined that those who interfered in the [U.S.] election” were Russians, she said. Again, those agencies have told us it was the Russians. But Castor’s point, taken up by his GOP colleagues, was that if you repeat the crazy Ukraine theory enough times, it will become more plausible for everyone to accept that the president really believed it and wanted it investigated. He’s backfilling the claim by repeating it.

My colleague Lili Loofbourow is absolutely right to point out that Republicans contorting themselves into Gordian knots to shore up Trump’s imagined slights against himself as a legitimate defense is the very definition of insanity: “This is what bending backward to a narcissist does: It trains sycophants to center him the way he centers himself.” But along with the mental health element, there is also a legal element to fold into their accommodations. As Trump defenders are quick to point out, presidents may hire and fire ambassadors, or put holds on appropriated military and humanitarian aid, and also do many other impulsive things, without constraint. But they may not do them corruptly or to achieve illegal ends. Trump’s intention, and state of mind when he did such things, is thus the question at the heart of both the Mueller obstruction probe and also the House Intelligence Committee’s Ukraine scandal probe. What Castor is building to isn’t simply a Republican consensus that Trump was right to withhold aid or a White House meeting to Zelensky. He’s building a state of mind.

Castor, Kennedy, and the Trump defenders are certainly serving disinformation ends when they blame Ukraine for 2016 meddling. But they also want to drag anyone who is confused by all of this to accept a Trumpian theory of mind. They seek to make the case that even if Trump wrongly believed that Ukrainians stole the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton, or that Hunter Biden and his dad were driving Ukrainian corruption for years, those beliefs were still somehow “reasonable,” and therefore we can excuse his impulsive decisions as reasonable too. In its way, this echoes their defense of the firing of James Comey and other obstructive acts probed by Robert Mueller. Trump was legitimately paranoid about the Russia probe; that makes his efforts to shut it down somehow legal. (Never mind that the paranoia, itself unreasonable, is terrifying in its own right.)

Right now, such beliefs—fueled by Giuliani and corrupt Ukrainians and of course Vladimir Putin and a handful of newspaper articles—are still not credible or reasonable. They are fringe, which is why virtually every witness in the hearings has dismissed them as fringe and why 71 percent of Americans believe Trump did something wrong in Ukraine. Those dismissals are why Castor is beavering away on his backup argument, that even if they were incorrect, they still justified Trump’s paranoia. And that is the argument Senate Republicans, including John Kennedy, have been deputized to spread. Some of the truly crazed Republicans in the Senate will be all in on Ukrainian election meddling, because, why not? But others will be content to assert that Donald Trump’s legitimate belief in Ukrainian election meddling means nothing improper could have happened. And the more Fox News insists that the former claim is true, the easier it will be to push the latter theory into the mainstream. It is a sliding scale, need-based disinformation tactic. The endgame here is not merely to accommodate and appease Trump’s demonstrable clinical narcissism but also to provide legitimacy to his only legal defense: that Ukraine could have meddled in 2016, and so investigating such corruption made perfect sense.