Excuses, excuses!

Since the Whistleblower’s Complaint, Republicans have scrambled to find excuses for Trump. The only problem? The excuses don’t stand up to scrutiny and often contradict each other.

Remember when Trump’s call with Ukraine leader Zelensky was “perfect” with “no quid pro quo” except that his Chief of Staff said yes, there was a quid pro quo, it happens all the time and we all need to get over it? Remember when Republicans stormed the SCIF, courted arrest, and ordered pizza—but the hearing they tried to block still took place, if delayed?

While the Ukraine story that Trump is being impeached over remains a simple one—that Trump held back Ukraine’s military aid in return for two “favors”: that they announce an investigation into Biden, and exonerate Russia from the 2016 election attack—Republicans under the glare of scrutiny have twisted this way and that, scrambled to find one excuse after another, watched their excuses crumble, and scrambled to find new ones, even though they might contradict the old ones.

None of it matters, because the idea is to confuse and obfuscate: a lights-and-sounds show that will distract from the basic fact that Trump has no good defenses left. All of these excuses have been debunked by experts and some actually contradict each other.

Zelensky phone call was “perfect”

(Sept 20-24)

Before the Whistleblower’s Complaint went public, Trump’s allies actually urged him to release the transcript of his July 25 call with Zelensky, under the notion that nothing untoward actually happened and the transcript would show that.

Whistleblower’s Complaint is “hearsay”

(Sept 26-Oct 6)

Flailing in the days after the complaint was released, the right-wing media, GOP electeds in Congress, and Trump shied away from addressing the substance of the complaint, preferring instead to focus on the fact that the whistleblower (as he himself acknowledged) did not listen in to the July 25 Zelesky call as it was happening, but rather got information from a half a dozen staffers who did.

The “secret gutting of the first-hand requirement”

(Sept 27-30)

The Federalist, right-wing news site that often spreads misinformation (who funds the Federalist?), created a kerfuffle that lasted about four days when journalist Sean Davis suggested that an obscure Intelligence Community form that required whistleblowers to have first-hand knowledge had been changed very recently, right around the time the whistleblower’s complaint was filed.

“Adam Schiff wrote the whistleblower complaint”

(Oct 2-Oct 4)

The way this story morphed from a journalistic report about a routine procedure into an inflamed accusation about COLLUSION! can offer a master-class to an aspiring propagandist.

On October 2nd, the New York Times reported that the whistleblower had approached Adam Schiff’s committee for advice after his initial report to the CIA’s head lawyer appeared to go nowhere. He received advice from an aide on how to file it without divulging what the underlying complaint was about.

“No Quid Pro Quo”

(Aug 31-Nov 20)

The “No Collusion” mantra worked so well for Trump during the Mueller investigation that he was out early with the new version: “No Quid Pro Quo”. Much like “No Collusion”, while the words meant one thing, his actions demonstrated the opposite. Trump’s supporters have flaunted this denial (obscured by Latin), while in reality explicitly carrying out his true intent.

“Quid Pro with No Quo”

(Oct 23)

A variant of the “no quid pro quo” was the excuse that the Ukrainians didn’t know that military aid was withheld.

Impeachment is illegitimate because the House hasn’t held a vote

(Oct 1-Oct 28)

Right out of the gate, the Republicans put up a firewall in response to the House’s impeachment inquiry. The White House argued that the inquiry was illegitimate and no documents would be forthcoming from them. Sec of State Pompeo called the inquiry an attempt to “intimidate and bully” in a scathing letter and refused to provide documents or permit State employees to testify.

Trump doesn’t have due process in House Intelligence hearings

(Oct 11-Nov 21)

Compared to the House Republicans’ rather focused legalistic pushback, White House Lawyer Pat Cipollone’s letter to the House leaders read as wild, frantic, and decidedly un-lawyer-like. Sure enough, it turned out that Trump wrote or dictated major parts of it despite it being purportedly signed by the White House Lawyer.

It argued that since the President was not permitted to have his counsel present during the House Intelligence depositions in order to cross-examine witnesses, or view transcripts and evidence, he was being denied due process.

The storming of the SCIF: “Secret hearings”

(Oct 14 – Oct 23)

One one side were the sober depositions given by career foreign service officials testifying to wrongdoing by the President. On the other side: the antics of House Republicans intended to disrupt, deflect, and distract from what was going on inside the secure basement room.

Different rules in House Judiciary from the Nixon/Clinton impeachments”

(Oct 31-Dec 6)

On October 31st, the House established rules for Trump’s impeachment. Trump reacted instantly on Twitter calling it the “greatest witch hunt in American history!” Republicans from Sen. Inhofe to Rep. Scalise to Rep. Steil complained that Trump was not getting the same due process protections as Nixon and Clinton did during their impeachments.

Politifact rated this claim “Mostly False” but the details are fascinating.

Attempts to out the whistleblower

Consider a tipster who calls in a burglary in progress. The cops arrive and find the stolen goods, they obtain public confessions by the burglars and plenty of first-hand witnesses.

What about the tipster? His unpaid tickets, personal history, drug addictions, are all irrelevant. For the people who are glad the burglary was foiled, the anonymous tipster was a dutiful citizen who called in to right a wrong. For the burglars, the tipster is a stinking rat, who must be exposed and threatened so that no other passers-by dare call in a burglary again.

And that’s where we are.

Bad but not impeachable

(Oct 10 – Nov 10)

A fascinating Washington Post report on a particular lunch meeting attended by Republican Senators begins like this:

A growing number of Senate Republicans are ready to acknowledge that President Trump used U.S. military aid as leverage to force Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden and his family as the president repeatedly denies a quid pro quo.

Washington Post, Nov 1, 2019

This was a trial balloon sent up by Senate Republicans once the “no quid pro quo” and its variants had crumbled. It involved acknowledging that what Trump did was wrong, but not admitting that it rose to the level of impeachment.

Trump did not know what Rudy, Sondland, and Mulvaney were up to

(Nov 7 – Nov 20)

As the more basic excuses had fallen away—Trump did ask the Ukrainian President to investigate Biden; aid was indeed held back; the Ukrainians knew that aid was held back, and repeatedly tried to free it up; and process arguments weren’t sticking, or stopping impeachment—Republicans road-tested a new one.

The funds were ultimately released, “no quid in the pro quo”

On September 11th, with Zelensky poised to surrender to Trump’s demands and announce on CNN that he would be opening investigations—using a statement scripted by US diplomats, no less, like a hostage video—Trump abruptly released the hold on military aid. Thus, Zelensky “got lucky” and never needed to make the announcement.

Trump wanted to make sure Ukraine was fighting corruption”

Ultimately, all defenses of Trump were destined to end in this. It comes full circle from “perfect call”. This is the defense Trump always wanted his defenders to mount, and now, with the House Republicans response to the HPSCI inquiry, they have done it. And it is now the main defense that Republicans offer on cable news appearances.

It goes like this: “Everything Trump did in extorting Ukraine was to ensure that Ukraine was taking up some particular anti-corruption measures. Biden really was corrupt in his actions in Ukraine (debunked). Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election against Trump (also debunked). Crowdstrike—the security firm that first reported on Russia’s attack is owned by a Ukrainian (wrong). The “server” might be found in Ukraine (incorrect, also nonsensical).”

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A masterclass in how right-wing propaganda is manufactured

This NYT interview with two Ukrainian oligarchs gives an inside view into how right-wing dirt peddled by the likes of John Solomon and Sean Hannity is manufactured

(Featured image credit: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images. Source: NYT.)

NYT published an astonishing article this morning about Rudy Giuliani’s interactions with two Ukrainian oligarchs, in that it gives an inside view into how right-wing dirt is manufactured by such luminaries as John Solomon (formerly at the Hill) and Sean Hannity.

Background

Rudy Giuliani had been attempting to get Ukraine leaders to announce an investigation into Biden for almost a year. He was on the verge of getting the last Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to do so, when Poroshenko lost the election to newbie politician Volodomyr Zelensky on 21st April 2019.

This story picks up when Rudy, with his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (now under indictment at SDNY) scramble to influence new President Zelensky to continue the sham investigation of Biden.

Two days after Zelensky was elected, they contacted Oligarch 1 (Ihor Kolomoisky), a Zelensky mentor with US legal troubles, to offer him “help” with the US DOJ in return for dirt on Bidens. Keep in mind what this “help” meant: dropping investigations now that AG Bill Barr was in Trump’s pocket. They were sent packing by Kolomoisky with some colorful language. Kolomoisky warned that this threesome was plotting against Biden.

Snubbed by Kolomoisky (Oligarch 1), Rudy trash-talked him on Twitter, accusing him of threatening Parnas & Fruman (his “clients”), and called upon new President Zelensky to arrest him.

Then they went to Oligarch 2 (Dmitry Firtash). Firtash has been indicted by US DOJ for bribery, and is fighting extradition from Vienna.

Now we are in June 2019. Rudy offered Firtash the services of Joe DiGenova and Victoria Toensing, scumbag Fox News lawyers who are long-standing friends of Trump and Rudy. The deal they offered Firtash: they would “help” him fight extradition, in exchange for dirt on Biden. Firtash has a history with Biden: reforms pushed by Biden as VP cost Firtash hundreds of millions of dollars, and he raged against “overlord” Biden for years.

Around the same time—June 2019—DOJ hired the son of DiGenova and Toensing (Brady Toensing) as the Senior Counsel in the Office of Legal Policy. Clearly, given Trump’s corruption of the DOJ and his influence on AG Bill Barr, and now with the Toensing offspring installed at DOJ, Rudy and his pals believed they could get Firtash off.

DiGenova & Toensing were hired by Firtash in July. In August, they managed to get a face-to-face meeting with AG Bill Barr in order to press Firtash’s case.

Now keep in mind what else was going on around this time. On July 25th, Trump had his famous phone-call with Zelensky where he pressured Zelensky to work with Rudy and Barr on their investigation of the Bidens. When the phone call went public in late September, Barr showed great umbrage at being linked with Rudy; but a month prior, in August, he had been quite willing to take a face-to-face meeting with Rudy’s sleazy associates DiGenova & Toensing.

By this point DOJ had gotten wind of the Whistleblower’s Complaint. They knew they were being scrutinized for the extortion of Zelensky for dirt on Biden.

With DOJ under scrutiny, Barr refused to intercede on Firtash’s behalf.

Black propaganda

John Solomon interviewing a different Ukrainian Prosecutor on Hill TV

But what they were able to pull off is no less important.

DiGenova & Toensing were now officially Firtash’s lawyers. Therefore, they had access to his private legal files. Digging through these, they found that a lot of it was interesting for US politics and Trump’s impeachment: for example, letters that showed that Special Counsel Mueller had sought Firtash’s testimony.

The meaning of this letter was twisted by John Solomon at The Hill. John Solomon, also a “client” of DiGenova & Toensing, is a well-known propagandist who often works with Rudy in pushing what is known as “black propaganda“—fake news that appears to come out of nowhere, whose sources are hidden, and thereby more influential. Solomon, facing strong disapprobation from co-workers, has now left The Hill.

Solomon published a piece on July 22nd where he could claim to have access to contemporaneous memos (snitched from Firtash’s private files). He framed the letter from Mueller’s team to Firtash as something nefarious: an illegitimate attempt to squeeze Firtash in exchange for a political hit job on Trump. He also claimed that the DOJ case against Firtash was “falling apart”—which sounds suspiciously as though the Toensing son at DOJ was well on his trajectory of making the case against Firtash disappear.

Rudy went further. On Fox News, he claimed that Mueller’s team “suborned perjury from Firtash”—i.e., asked him to lie. To be clear, Firtash’s private letters showed nothing of the kind. The quid-pro-quo between Firtash and the Rudy-DiGenova-Toensing trio was close to fruition—extradition vanishing in return for dirt that helped Trump.

They also found among the private files affidavits signed by corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin that made allegations against Biden. Solomon wrote about them as “once-secret memos” and Rudy waved them around on cable TV. They didn’t mention that Shokin was holding back anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine and that all Western nations wanted him removed before they would provide aid; they didn’t mention that therefore, Shokin had an ax to grind against Biden.

The propaganda had another piece that never came to fruition. There had been an interview arranged with Shokin on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox where he could repeat those allegations against Biden. Parnas and Fruman—as the team’s translators—were on their way to Vienna to set up this interview when they were nabbed by SDNY. The Hannity interview never happened as Parnas and Fruman now face charges.

A strange and much-remarked upon meeting in NY occured the same evening that Parnas and Fruman were arrested—between AG Bill Barr and Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch. It was an odd pairing that set off much speculation: what on earth could the Attorney General have to say to a media mogul? It was only later that we found out that Hannity’s interview was slated to occur on Fox through the good offices of Parnas and Fruman, and was now thwarted due to SDNY.

The Upshot

This was a plot that was foiled halfway.

Imagine an alternative universe: we wake up one day to see President Zelensky leveling charges on Fareed Zakaria’s show on CNN that Biden had corruptly demanded they kill an investigation into Hunter Biden. Meanwhile, John Solomon and Sean Hannity feature sympathetic interviews with ex-prosecutor Shokin where he claims to have been shut down by Biden. All of this news breaks just as the 2020 election cycle is getting underway, with Biden as the likely Democratic nominee opposing Trump. His name gets associated with foreign scandal.

On a separate thread, Firtash escapes from under the weight of his US DOJ bribery charges. He is free to travel without the threat of extradition.

While the US news media covers these allegations against Biden breathlessly, and Shokin becomes a short-lived media star, we are completely in the dark about the many months of backroom machinations it took from the the likes of Rudy, Parnas, and Fruman to get there. We are in the dark about how Zelensky was extorted and finally received his military aid. We are in the dark about the connection between Firtash’s newfound freedom and Biden’s troubles.

We were saved from this fate due to the Whistleblower’s Complaint.

Once again, here is the NYT article “Why Giuliani Singled Out 2 Ukrainian Oligarchs to Help Dig Up Dirt“.

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