The Ukraine scandal is testing the limits of the conservative media spin operation
These days, the conservative news media ecosystem generally works like this: a constellation of fringe websites churns out heavily skewed stories that either misinterpret or fabricate information in order to create narratives that defend President Trump’s reported misconduct. If those same stories can accuse his opponents of an unfounded conspiracy theory, all the better.
The stories then make their way to Fox News’s prime-time opinion shows. From there, they’re disseminated through a vast network of television talking heads, elected officials, and right-wing content aggregators — finally landing themselves on the president’s Twitter feed. Rinse, repeat.
Over the weekend, the system sprung into action in response to the Ukraine whistleblower scandal, the biggest threat Trump has faced yet. The broad tenets of the scandal are this: According to a whistleblower complaint and a call memo produced by the White House, Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Vice President Joe Biden, only a few days after requesting that nearly $400 million in aid to the country be frozen. While Trump alluded to American aid efforts before bringing up Biden in his call with Zelensky, he did not explicitly link the two, per the White House’s reconstructed transcript.
Unlike in the Russian election interference story, where right-wing commentators had success obscuring the truth because the facts of the situation were so convoluted, some of Trump’s biggest defenders have fallen flat on their faces amid the Ukraine scandal.
One central strategy to de-escalating the situation, for example, rested on questioning the legitimacy of the whistleblower complaint itself. “WHO CHANGED THE LONG STANDING WHISTLEBLOWER RULES JUST BEFORE SUBMITTAL OF THE FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER REPORT?” tweeted Trump this morning, in reference to a story first posted Friday on the right-wing site The Federalist, which has served as one of the president’s staunchest defenders since his election.
In the piece, Federalist co-founder Sean Davis alleges that the government form used to submit whistleblower complaints was altered shortly before the Ukraine whistleblower complaint became public, in order to allow whistleblowers to submit complaints without first-hand knowledge. Davis alleged the change was rushed through in August by Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general.
The implication is that Atkinson made the change specifically in order to allow this particular whistleblower to accuse Trump of misconduct based on sketchy second-hand information. In the complaint, the intelligence official who made the report acknowledges he was not involved directly in the situations he was reporting about, but Atkinson — a Trump appointee — deemed the complaint “credible” and “urgent” when it was first submitted.
Needless to say, prominent Republicans ate up Davis’s claims of malpractice.
“Whistleblowers were required to provide direct, first-hand knowledge of allegations,” California Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, tweeted Saturday. “But just days before the Ukraine whistleblower came forward, the [intelligence community] secretly removed that requirement from the complaint form.” The story was repeated by other prominent Republicans, including Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, and Fox News host Sean Hannity.
Trump posted about it the following day. The problem is that the premise of the article is false.
“What the article didn’t mention ... is a nearly identical field gracing [the form] since at least May 2018,” wrote national security reporter Kevin Poulsen in The Daily Beast, “making it impossible that it was added as an easement for Trump’s whistleblower.”
In other words: The change to the form in August actually has no bearing on whether whistleblower complaints can use second-hand information. Furthermore, one of the experts Poulsen interviewed in his story noted that it has “never” been a requirement for whistleblowers to have direct, first-person knowledge of the matters they’re reporting about.
In the end, Trump’s fervent supporters could only defend him by quibbling with the complaint’s existence at all, rather than the facts within it. Tellingly, even that circuitous effort failed. The facts of the case against Trump are especially hard to manipulate because of how simple they are — and crucially, because they’ve been confirmed by the White House itself, via the summary transcript it released last week of Trump’s call with Zelensky.
That’s why the right-wing media ecosystem is tying itself into knots. It’s hard to do grunt spin work on behalf of a general who has admitted to the basic claims against him. And it’s even worse when you and your fellow soldiers can’t get your stories straight.
Consider what happened following Rudy Giuliani’s Sunday appearance on ABC News. The former New York City mayor and current personal attorney to Trump sat down for an interview with George Stephanopoulos and pushed the false conspiracy theory that Ukraine was responsible for the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee, not Russia, as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded.
“November of 2016, [Ukrainian officials] first came to me,” Giuliani began. “And they said, ‘We have shocking evidence that the collusion that they claim happened in Russia — which didn’t happen — happened in the Ukraine, and it happened with Hillary Clinton. George Soros was behind it. George Soros’s company was funding it.”
Awkwardly, Thomas P. Bossert, President Trump’s first homeland security adviser, spoke to Stephanopoulos just before Giuliani did — and he didn’t toe the party line. The Ukraine story is “completely debunked,” Bossert told Stephanopoulos, adding that he was “deeply frustrated with what [Rudy Giuliani] and the legal team [are] doing ... repeating that debunked theory to the president.” Bossert went on to make clear that the intelligence community was firm in its conclusion that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, not Ukraine.
It’s quite remarkable to see the president’s personal lawyer spread a theory so incredibly false that it spurred Bossert, a prominent former administration official, to speak out against the interests of the president who appointed him. It also underscores how faced with the indisputable facts of the Zelensky call and the whistleblower complaint, the White House’s usual defenses have proved feeble.
Even as the president has destroyed norms — and now possibly broken laws — throughout his first term, he’s been buoyed by a constant spin machine that’s helped shield him from any serious damage. But that machine is sputtering as it attempts to spin damning statements that the president himself made and has admitted to.
In a CBS poll released Sunday, 55% of Americans expressed support for the House opening an impeachment inquiry, including a surprising 20% of Republicans. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made the move last week, and since then even more revelations have trickled out about Trump and his inner circle’s dealings with Ukraine.
Conservative media has been unable to bury the scandal — and things may be getting worse. Late Monday, the House Intelligence Committee subpoenaed Giuliani for documents related to Ukraine, and shortly thereafter The New York Times reported on another instance of Trump possibly manipulating American foreign policy for personal gain, this time on a call with the Australian president.
Unless Trump or his inner circle can produce evidence of their innocence that is as stark as that of their apparent wrongdoing, the widely feared right-wing disinformation machine may turn out to be little more than a paper tiger.