WASHINGTON — The high-ceilinged room where Congress held impeachment hearings this month didn’t just provide a window into President Donald Trump’s actions toward Ukraine. It also put on vivid display two divergent worlds of information cleaving America.
One world has centered on sworn testimony from government professionals, nonpartisan experts with decades of experience under presidents of both parties. Over five days of nationally televised hearings spanning the last two weeks, they cited notes, shared recollections, and explained the conclusions they reached based on years of foreign-policy work.
One of the most damning accounts came from a Trump ally, Gordon Sondland, who gave $1 million to the president’s inauguration and whom Trump later chose as ambassador to the European Union. Sondland testified that he and top administration officials followed Trump’s orders in pressuring Ukraine to help the president politically.
Republicans countered at times by defending Trump’s actions as legal, or questioning the reliability of the witnesses. But their main strategy relied on a fog of murky conspiracies and obscure references that had little to do with Trump’s behavior — but that have immense power among his supporters and in conservative media.
As Democrats prepare to move to the next phase of their impeachment inquiry, those competing narratives represent one of their greatest hurdles to removing the president from office.
As long as the Republican base sticks with Trump, so, almost certainly, will GOP lawmakers. Neither showed signs of budging after days of testimony in which Sondland and career public officials implicated the president and his top advisers in withholding vital military aid to Ukraine and a White House meeting unless the country took up a politically damaging investigation into Democrat Joe Biden.
“The case was so compelling that I would be shocked if some minds weren’t changed," said Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, one of the top Democrats on the committee leading the inquiry. "I would also be shocked if any Republican minds were changed, because they have insulated themselves from any fact that is in contradiction to a fantasy world where the president is interested in Ukrainian corruption.”
“We’re in this media world, and social media, where everyone picks their own facts and it’s a real threat,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D., Vt.), another member of the House Intelligence Committee. “The president stokes that, but this is not just about Trump, the way we’ve had this breakdown in norms. But I don’t think any of us have the answer.”
Witnesses, including those who worked for Trump, almost universally described a president caught in an alternative world himself, questioning U.S. support for Ukraine based on a debunked conspiracy theory that that country, not Russia, was responsible for 2016 election interference. U.S. intelligence agencies and Trump’s own top aides, including his FBI director and director of national intelligence, have all said otherwise.
But Republicans have the advantage of not needing to prove what Trump did or didn’t do. Creating enough doubt may be sufficient to hold his support together.
"When we start to look at the facts, everybody has their impression of what truth is,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), one of Trump’s most prominent defenders, said early in the week of hearings.
Trump himself continued to push discredited theories Friday, using a Fox News interview to revive the idea that Ukrainian actors were responsible for interfering in the 2016 election.
Just a day earlier, a former Russia expert in Trump’s White House warned against spreading that very idea.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," said Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official.
Republicans, in turn, argued that the entire impeachment effort is based on reporters who are “puppets of the Democratic Party,” in the words of California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee. He repeatedly used his time during the hearings to blast the media, issuing statements that had little to do with the testimony but that were ripe for clipping and playing on cable news and online.
“You may have noticed a disconnect between what you actually saw and the mainstream media accounts describing it,” Nunes said in one opening statement.
Other Republicans did make more substantive cases based on the facts and evidence.
One argument held that Trump was right to raise questions about Ukrainian corruption and withhold military aid — though the president, in his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky did not raise concerns beyond Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and the discredited election interference theory.
Republicans also pointed out that most of the witnesses didn’t have direct interaction with Trump, and questioned Sondland’s memory lapses and shifting explanations. Trump has blocked most people who did interact with him directly from testifying.
“An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear and unambiguous,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R., Texas). ”I have not heard evidence that the president has committed bribery or extortion.”
But the most prominent GOP voices, Nunes and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, launched into questioning that often sounded like conspiracy-theory bingo. They flung out names and words that landed with little explanation to the uninitiated — and left even the expert witnesses befuddled — but that have found purchase among conservative television, radio, and websites.
They darkly insinuated that one witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Ukrainian-born American citizen with a Purple Heart, was loyal to Ukraine, despite his decorated service in the U.S. military. They cited an ominous-sounding “black ledger,” tied to Trump’s now jailed former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic contractor who, according to one news account in 2017, solicited information from Ukrainians while researching Manafort. They painted those disparate wisps of information in the same dark vein as Russia’s systematic, officially sanctioned, and deeply documented election interference.
And the same Republicans argued that hours of consistent testimony from a wide range of officials was insufficient proof of anything.
“What I’m seeing today is an ability to deny reality,” John Dean, the former White House counsel to President Richard Nixon, said Thursday on CNN when asked about how the GOP has changed from his time to today.
Cable news coverage of Sondland’s explosive opening statement put the different worlds on display.
“SONDLAND TIES TRUMP, PENCE & POMPEO TO UKRAINE PRESSURE CAMPAIGN,” read a CNN banner. “SONDLAND CONFIRMS DEAL WITH UKRAINE, IMPLICATES TRUMP,” MSNBC blared, according to CNN media reporter Brian Stelter.
On Fox News, the banner headline read: “REP NUNES DELIVERS OPENING STATEMENT”
The counternarratives seem set to continue as Democrats ready for an impeachment vote and, in all likelihood, a Senate trial. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) this week requested State Department documents concerning contact between Biden, his son Hunter, and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The divide over not just how to interpret the facts, but what the facts are, has infused nearly every aspect of American politics, and will be an unpredictable factor in the 2020 presidential campaign. It predates Trump, but has been accelerated by a president who has actively sought to discredit the news media.
Impeachment is such an emotional issue that it’s likely to stir the basic human biases that all people carry, said Michael Macy, a Cornell University sociologist who has studied how party identification drives policy beliefs.
“It becomes like a sporting event. It’s our team, the Democratic team, against the Republican team, and it’s our quarterback against their quarterback,” said Macy, Cornell’s Goldwin Smith Professor of Arts and Sciences. "People become emotionally invested in their team, in the same way that sports fans can become quite rabid in support of their team.”