How to Disengage With the Republican Conspiracy Theories Swirling Around Impeachment

Debunking hasn’t worked. Maybe this will.

A speech bubble with a cartoon-y unicorn coming out of Rudy Giuliani's mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wong/Getty Images and Getty Images Plus.

One of the things that has been lost in the smog of disinformation, misinformation, and lies throughout this impeachment process is that the president, Rudy Giuliani, and select members of the House and Senate are still peddling, as an affirmative defense to claims that the Trump tried to extort Ukraine into 2020 election interference, the idea that Ukraine—not Russia—meddled in the 2016 election, and that Joe and Hunter Biden have committed vast crimes of corruption.

The former claim is a Russian hoax. The latter is a lie. Foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill, when she testified before the House Intelligence Committee last month, warned House members indulging claims about Ukrainian election interference in 2016 that they were repeating “a fictional narrative” that was likely part of a disinformation campaign by Russian security services.

The first of these claims have been debunked and debunked and debunked and debunked again, including last week, by Trump’s hand-picked FBI director. The claim that Joe or Hunter Biden committed crimes of corruption with respect to Burisma has been debunked and debunked and debunked by the very same prosecutor who once urged that it was true.

But still, it does not seem to take hold. The reason Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson launched a Senate inquiry into Hunter Biden is because the details of what Biden, Burisma, and Ukraine allegedly did are sufficiently confusing as to create an adequate distraction. The reason Giuliani, the president’s lawyer/not-lawyer, has been swanning around the globe making a reality TV show about Ukrainian election interference with the One America News Network—which has filed bizarre news reports about the trip, making false and dubious claims about the Bidens and Hillary Clinton and Ukraine—is because he can.

The reason three separate Senate committees (Judiciary, Finance, and Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs) are all working now to investigate Ukraine’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election – a narrative that has been promoted by Russian security services, despite clear cut evidence, and 34 indictments, of those involved in actual Russian meddling in 2016, is because, hey, why not? In an era of I’m Rubber You’re Glue truthiness, why not continue to falsely accuse your opponents of doing exactly the thing you have been caught doing yourself?

So here’s a little thought experiment, which may or may not clarify where we now stand, on the eve of an impeachment trial in the Senate: Instead of claiming that Joe Biden corruptly and improperly pressured the Ukrainian government in 2016 to fire then–Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin to thwart Shokin’s anti-corruption investigation of Burisma, a gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served, pretend for a moment that Rudy Giuliani is actually claiming that Hunter Biden is a silky pink pony. And instead of claiming that after the Democratic National Committee was hacked in 2016, the DNC handed over an actual physical server to a Ukrainian cybersecurity company, CrowdStrike, whose server still today sits in Ukraine and contains irrefutable evidence that Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the DNC in 2016, pretend that Giuliani is circumnavigating the globe in an attempt to prove that Ukraine is a tiny undersea kingdom run by cunning dolphins and mermaids.

This sounds absurd because it is. But if you can accept, as virtually every reputable news organization has now confirmed, that Giuliani and House Republicans and Senate Republicans and Trump are all endlessly repeating claims about Ukraine and the Bidens that are patently false and unproved, then you can surely go ahead and think about Giuliani and Trump’s conspiracy theories as fever dreams—as silky ponies and crafty mermaids. You can think about the whole sorry CrowdStrike-Chalupa-Black-Ledger-Steele-Dossier-SPYING-on-the-CAMPAIGN-deep-state theory of the case as larger and prettier pink ponies and mermaids, too.

Doing so actually makes it vastly easier to understand that Attorney General Bill Barr, and Rep. Mark Meadows, and Grassley are simply trying to peddle something akin to Ponygate and Mermaidgate in an effort to confuse and distract people who overwhelmingly realize that the president did something hinky with respect to Ukraine, and who overwhelmingly want to hear witness testimony in a Senate impeachment trial. This is just a classic Steve Bannon chaos tip-over-the-chessboard move: Make the distraction utterly stupid-yet-complicated. It’s another Benghazi, But-Her-Emails, Swiftboat play that serves to make it seem like both sides have done wrong, even though only one side is based in fact.

Every time we take time to explain, and explain, and explain again that there was no meaningful Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election, and that while Hunter Biden may have done something ill-advised in working for Burisma, he did nothing illegal in 2016, we are both just debunking and also amplifying a fake undersea mermaid story. We are also, for whatever it’s worth to you, engaging in amplifying precisely the Biden smear campaign Trump initially sought from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. We’re also hanging FBI and foreign service officials who have testified to their falsity out to dry, and increasing the noise and fog around truthful impeachment evidence.

So instead of debunking, and re-bunking, and simultaneously reinforcing the most insane conspiracy theories around the present moment, I’d suggest reframing them as silky pink pony–mermaid stories, over and over. Let Sen. John Kennedy talk about mermaids on the Sunday talk shows for a few weeks and Sen. Lindsey Graham take a run at defending his views about the existence of soft, silky ponies. We elevate insane conspiracy theories at our collective peril. Lies are lies whether they sound complicated, involve Ukrainian oligarchs, or appear on OANN.

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