Following the announcement of the two articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump on Tuesday morning, progressives raced to formalize their positions in the monthslong battle over whether it was best to go broad or narrow in laying out the case against Donald Trump. Richard Hasen makes the case for the narrow focus here. Fred Kaplan disagrees. Jamelle Bouie says the two articles are not enough. Kim Wehle says they’re plenty. Laurence Tribe insists it’s a false choice. The cases center, in various directions, on thoughtful, careful analysis of what the evidence shows; what the proper scope of Trump’s wrongdoing should be; what moderate Democrats in the House would tolerate; and the breakneck timetable House Democrats have set for themselves. There is also the distinct possibility that House Democrats made the decision to limit themselves to two articles because of the regretful realization that Americans, who wouldn’t read the 448-page Mueller report or the 300-page intelligence committee report on the Trump-Ukraine inquiry, might just read the 8½ pages that represent the articles of impeachment.
I would venture that perhaps there is an even simpler reason for the two, spare articles. I think that the narrow nature of the impeachment charges speaks to the disinformation effort Democrats rightly expected to have to counter and their hope not to engage in a fight about multiple realities across multiple issues over a lengthy time period. In other words, my guess is that in the wake of the White House efforts to distort and confuse the outcome of the Mueller report by lying about it (efforts that were largely successful; it’s still referred to, falsely, as a “hoax” by the GOP), Adam Schiff, Jerry Nadler, and Nancy Pelosi made the reasonable decision to engage as little as possible with Republican lying. It is not simply that the impeachment managers have to sell a clean, coherent story, both to the public and in the Senate trial; it’s also that they need to avoid as many entanglements with fantasies and distractions as possible. Going narrow helps with that.
Quinta Jurecic and Jacob Schulz sketched out this strategy last weekend over at Lawfare, where they observed that the central challenge for journalists and researchers (and I would submit, for lawyers and citizens and anyone else with functioning brain activity) has been what to do about deliberate lies, or, as they write “how to respond to disinformation without amplifying the very falsehoods they’re seeking to disprove.” We’ve seen thousands of examples of this dynamic, whether it’s Fiona Hill declining to accede to the Russian propaganda the GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee were attempting to put in her mouth, or Chris Wallace declining to repeat Attorney General William Barr’s falsehoods about the FBI “spying” on the Trump campaign. In an information war that roams the Capitol in the garb of a legal-slash-political war, getting your side of the story out is not the main concern. How to respond to lies about your story without amplifying the lying is.
In response to that conundrum, note Jurecic and Schulz, Schiff made the tactical decision in his own intelligence committee’s report on the impeachment investigation “to have adopted one common strategy for dealing with disinformation: Deny it the attention it needs to grow.” As they note, Schiff’s comprehensive 300-page report is notably and deliberately silent on the subject of the “black ledger,” Alexandra Chalupa, and the Steele dossier. This is despite the fact that those three topics formed—in addition to process complaints—the backbone of the Republican defense of Donald Trump in the House Intelligence Committee hearings, along with the thoroughly debunked theory that there is an actual, physical Democratic National Committee server sitting somewhere in Ukraine because CrowdStrike is hiding it from the FBI. The reason these issues are not included is because this is a bunch of crap. It is a bunch of crap that Republicans in the House keep saying, and prominent senators and Trump’s secretary of state are now repeating, but it’s still a bunch of crap. So instead of picking it up with a long stick and waving it around and saying “we see this, but FYI, this is a bunch of crap,” Schiff, in his report, simply ignored it. Which seems to be a good move, because as Jurecic and Schulz argue, such a “cycle of distraction” keeps the false story alive. The better play is to ignore it altogether.
Barr continues to assert that the Mueller report collusion claims were “proven false” and Lindsey Graham continues to assert that Mueller produced no evidence of obstruction. But neither of these things is true, and so the choice was made by the Democratic leadership to avoid the landmines inherent in another cycle of debunking. In other words, the Democrats, in pursuing impeachment, have been fighting a two-front war: They are both trying to prove what is true and also attempting to fight what is farcical. And by engaging with the farce as little as necessary, Democrats are hoping to spend most of their energy on proving what is true. Are there perils to this approach? Certainly, not least of which is the fact that Overton windows being what they are, today’s failure to debunk a wacky conspiracy becomes tomorrow’s Fox News headline. And given that Barr himself, along with John Durham, has shown himself willing to do and say anything in service of a debunked conspiracy theory, the playing field is hardly level. When America’s lawyer is willing to call his own FBI compromised (or in Trump’s parlance “scum”) in the face of painstaking evidence to the contrary, the fight for truth is hardly going to be a fair one. But it still doesn’t mean that the House should feed into the distortions and the Russian talking points. There will be plenty of that on show in the Senate. The decision to keep these articles as clean as possible was also the decision to keep them focused on one central agreed upon fact: The president was attempting to manipulate the 2020 election to his own advantage, and he believes he cannot be investigated for any alleged wrongdoing. None of that inflects on a conspiracy theory, and that is a clean start.
When I wrote about truth-telling last week, and the need to do so in the face of spectacular nonsense, a reader pointed me to a paragraph in Jean-Paul Sartre’s classic 1946 essay “Anti-Semite and Jew”. The essay addressed the rise of Nazism, but the logic of illogic it described runs backward and forward through history, from the clown costumes and absurd literacy tests of the Klan-ruled American South through Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s claim this year that the fires in the Amazon rainforest were in fact set by Leonardo DiCaprio.
In a seminal paragraph in the essay, Sartre describes it as follows:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.
One of the most striking aspects of this month’s House Judiciary Committee hearings is how much delight, how much exultant joy and pride were evident in Doug Collins and Matt Gaetz’s nonsensical claims about nonsensical things. The sheer gleeful sociopathy on display in farcical Republican claims about the Steele dossier, and illegal spying, and Russian innocence is hard to miss. The intent is the same as that identified more than 70 years ago by Sartre: to undermine the seriousness of the interlocutors, to force serious people to answer ridiculous arguments, to amuse themselves that frivolous, playful lies can take root among sober people. This is the reason the articles of impeachment are stripped to the bone, and nearly devoid of detail. They are a last-ditch effort to show good faith in the face of risible distortions.
Democrats have served up a carcass, so as to avoid a feast of mistruth.