Americans are obsessed with a good cliffhanger. From “who shot JR” in 1980 to “who shot Mr. Burns” in 1995, ours is a culture obsessed with bobbing and weaving and taunting and teasing until landing at the Perry Mason “aha” in the final frame. Even as the glut of true crime podcasts has revealed that courts get it wrong in that final frame time after time, the marriage between our faith in compulsive legalism and the possibility of getting to the bottom of things remains rock solid. Perhaps the best way to explain the cognitive stalemate in impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump, then, is by recognizing that though there are two sides determined to “get to the bottom of things,” they are not trying at all to get to the bottom of the same thing. Instead, we have arrived at a moment in which two “investigations” are happening on two parallel tracks, with one of them investigating something already known (whether Trump’s actions with Ukraine were an abuse of his presidential power for personal gain) and the other investigating something that can never be proved (that Democrats are bad, hate the president, and mumble mumble something Jay Sekulow). Cumulatively, the twin “investigations” will thus likely cancel one another out.
First, the Ukraine investigation: House Democrats are continuing to probe something that is already incontrovertibly proven. Just as we all awaited with bated breath a Mueller report that could (and eventually did) “prove” something Trump had confessed to on national television (obstructing justice), we are now seeking, again, to investigate and then “prove” that the president conducted back-channel diplomacy in Ukraine to pressure a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 election. We already know he did. We know it because it was all set forth in the original whistleblower’s complaint and then corroborated by the readout of the president’s perfect July phone call, as supplied by the White House itself. It was further corroborated by multiple witnesses in the House impeachment investigation (including GOP witnesses) and corroborated again last week by a tranche of documents taken from indicted Rudy Giuliani confederate Lev Parnas. It has now also been characterized as an illegal act, according to the Government Accountability Office. So that’s all out there.
Everyone knows what the president did and why he did it, and yet we have instead fixated on a new Perry Mason aha opportunity: calling witnesses at the Senate trial. If the Senate is allowed to call John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani, the thinking goes, then we will get to the bottom of this. Truth will out. To get this out of the way: Of course the Senate should call fact witnesses who have brazenly ignored subpoenas and of course they should testify. This would be the first impeachment trial without them. And while Trump’s lawyers keep pretending that the reason House impeachment managers want to see witnesses and documents now is that they just were too plain dumb to call them in the House, it’s perfectly obvious that they were requested and never produced. They were also promised, by the president himself, in the Senate trial. So yes, we need more witnesses, even though Republicans in the Senate voted Tuesday that “later” is a good time to decide that question, in the hopes that when it gets to be “later,” everyone will have forgotten that it’s meant to be a trial, and not a complicated focus group. But as Harry Litman wisely points out, there is already plenty of documentary evidence supporting the House’s claims, with or without witness testimony. Believing that the next smoking gun or the smoking gun after that will be the one to change hearts and minds has been shown to be irrational for years now. The president urged foreign powers to intervene in elections. Twice. This lily has been gilded so many times, it should be housed next to the Hope Diamond at the Smithsonian. He did it. His defenders admit that he did it. (They just don’t think it should matter.) You can drop the fingerprinting kit, Hercule Poirot. This case is already closed.
Indeed, he even admits he did it. As Greg Sargent points out, the gravamen of the Trump defense argument is “of course he did it! But he did it because the president was conducting an investigation of his own!” That investigation was one of free-floating Ukraine corruption that just happened to be solely centered on Hunter Biden. OK then. The Trump defense will be that he cannot be investigated by House Democrats because Rudy Giuliani’s and Bill Barr’s “investigation” of Ukrainian corruption was perfectly fine. Also, they seem to think that the Senate should investigate anyone involved in the House investigation, like the whistleblower and Adam Schiff. It’s an investigation-off, or perhaps, more accurately, a choose-your-own-investigation adventure, in which confused citizens are invited to pick which conspiracy they’d prefer to believe: the much-corroborated abuse of presidential power in Ukraine, or the much-debunked Biden-Burisma fever dream, with a side of Schiff-gate for good measure. And by simply planting and then endlessly reiterating the Biden-gate talking points, Republicans benefit not merely from a nice “both sides” credibility bump but can also claim to merely be benignly curious. You know, just getting to the bottom of things, Law and Order–style.
But that is where the investigation-versus-investigation narrative goes off the rails. One investigation is unnecessary: What Rudy Giuliani did in Ukraine at Trump’s behest is undisputed. The other investigation is utterly pointless: You can investigate Hillary Clinton ’til your face falls off, and probe Jim Comey until the cows come home, and you are never going to find the thing you are claiming to seek. But that is precisely the point of the Biden-Burisma-Schiff-whistleblower–deep state probes. You get all the benefits of sowing generalized, perpetual doubt about the facts, or as Sean Illing characterizes it, of “flood[ing] the zone with shit,” with no downside. And it is viewed as somehow on par with the fact-based investigations that seek to reveal real truth.
The two imperatives, therefore, pull in opposite directions. It’s a Janus-faced probe of two opposite things at once. Reality-based investigations drag on forever, under the mistaken conviction that some smoking gun will be decisive. And nihilist-based investigations also drag on forever, under the mistaken conviction that an imaginary smoking gun will be unearthed and prove them justified in years of fruitless searching. The media, as Illing observes, profits from both stories. And over time, the public numbs it all out and comes to believe either that nothing is knowable or that both sides lie. Someone should invent a word for fake investigations undertaken merely to distract us from known facts. Oh wait, we did: It’s Benghazi.
I have no advice on what to tell people who choose to believe that Hunter Biden offers the real silver bullet smoking gun in this Senate trial. But I can assert that hopscotching from one conclusive revelation to the next can also become numbing, even for the reality-based community. Seeking, over and over, evidence of that which has already been proved sets the bar higher than it need be. And it also blunts us to how horrifying those very first disturbing facts—from the original lies on the campaign trail to the corruption of the inauguration—really were. Or as Paul Waldman puts it, the primary mantra of the Trump Era has become “we knew this already.” As I’ve suggested in the past, this is not about persuasion, or even about TV ratings, but about a messaging war, in which one side is overcommitted to truth-seeking while the other is overcommitted to shit-seeking. The fact that Fox’s late-night hosts are muting the Democrats when they speak is your tell, and so is their claim that you should turn it off because it’s boring. The goals will never line up and the results will never come in. This is not, in other words, a problem that will be solved by supercharged dueling investigations. The GOP investigation is being used to distract from the real one.
Even if there were a magical machine designed to separate wheat from chaff, and truth from fiction, the Senate is not that machine. Both of the current Mitch McConnell plays—limit any and all pertinent evidence or threaten to gum up the works by calling Hunter Biden—only add to the fiction that both sides have meritorious investigative claims. In any ground war between shit and truth, shit is far easier to spread and everyone comes out smelling of it. I’m no longer committed to an aha ending, although those who claim that this is all too complicated to follow are not just complicit in the Senate Republicans’ effort to help the White House obstruct justice; they’re also actively choosing death by reality show in this reality show presidency. But despite the fact that we are stuck here, there will be no decisive season finale in the Senate. Our love affair with legal mechanisms for truth-seeking notwithstanding, the object here is not to locate the umpteenth smoking gun, but rather to lay out, again and again and again, that only one side in this investigation is actually for ferreting out truth, while the other is hoping you’ll grow tired and despondent watching them spread fertilizer.