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How Impeachment Is Being Spun

Welcome to The Spin Cycle, a semi-regular look at how the impeachment inquiry is being sold to the American public by Washington-types — both those who are looking to oust the president and those looking to save him.

The most marked quality of the last three years of American political life is the sheer number of news-making events that have occurred. Those events and their aftermath can be nearly impossible to keep track of.

Impeachment has only complicated things, which is impressive, since the facts of the Democrats’ inquiry into President Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine seem relatively straightforward. But of course, impeachment is a political process, not a criminal one — the founding fathers were vague about what “high crimes and misdemeanors” meant, perhaps so that generations of lawyers could make their nut figuring it all out.

Impeachment, as it turns out, is really about politicians selling the public on the facts as they’d like them interpreted; it’s a public relations operation as much as a constitutionally allotted power. We decided it makes sense not just to keep track of the inquiry’s pile of evidence, but also to track how politicians are interpreting that evidence and how the public responds to their spin. We are interested, in other words, in how the facts get laundered.

The facts are themselves crucially important, of course. But finding the truth in politics often means wading through ankle-deep, barnyard-sweet bullshit. The spin. The grandstanding. The press conferences in front of helicopters and flags.

So let’s be organized about this and lay things out as they are on October 11, from facts to spin to public opinion.

The inquiry’s central facts

If the Ukraine impeachment scandal was a dish of chicken Kiev, think of these facts as the chicken breast, pounded thin under the pressure of high-wattage political scandal: On July 25, President Trump had a call with the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. During the call, Trump pressured Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Text message exchanges between Trump officials and advisors to Zelensky later revealed that the Trump administration was in negotiations to secure the investigation — the Americans dangled a visit to the White House as bait. Around the same time, the White House blocked $400 million in aid to Ukraine, suggesting that the Ukrainians may have faced additional pressure to comply with Trump’s request.

An ever-expanding cast of characters animates those central facts. There’s the CIA whistleblower whose formal complaint about Trump’s call with Zelensky allowed all of these facts to be spilled out into public view — he’s the herbed butter of the chicken Kiev, bursting with flavorful information. (OK, I’ll stop.) He has been followed in recent days by a new whistleblower, who reportedly has first-hand knowledge of Trump’s Ukraine interactions.

And just this week, two associates of the president’s lawyer and America’s (former) mayor, Rudy Giuliani, were arrested and indicted for violating campaign finance law. The indictment says they helped funnel foreign money to candidates for office. The men, American citizens born in Eastern Europe, appeared to be part of a pressure campaign to remove the American ambassador to Ukraine — reportedly at the behest of Giuliani — from her post.

The political spin

The Democrats

The Democrats are waging a two-front war of sorts: one in the hearing rooms of the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives and the other on the 2020 campaign trail.

On the Congressional front: In her September 24 speech opening up the impeachment inquiry, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said: “The president has admitted to asking the president of Ukraine to take actions which would benefit him politically. The actions of the Trump presidency revealed dishonorable facts of betrayal of his oath of office and betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” She was saying the president has already committed an impeachable offense and that we already have the evidence of him doing so. No spin needed.

Of course, “no spin needed, just the facts” is a spin of its own. “Every new piece of information has corroborated the basic facts, which are devastating for the president,” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney told The New York Times, in a perfect demonstration of the restrained (for now) party line.

To reinforce their fact-gathering mode, on October 4, Democrats sent a subpoena notice to the White House for documents relating to the Ukraine dealings. Failure to comply, the letter said, “shall constitute evidence of obstruction.” Other administration officials have since received subpoenas, as well.

On the campaign front: Democrats running for president have caught onto the idea that the de rigueur line on impeachment is “the facts speak for themselves.” Speaking at a campaign event on October 5, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who has run a campaign based on what she’d have you believe is a core Midwestern ethos of not rocking the boat, said, “I think that all of us believe that the evidence is there.”

Joe Biden has been slow to stir up big news when it comes to the impeachment drama, perhaps because it’s his family’s name being dragged through the scandal. But on October 9, Biden called clearly for the president to be impeached, not just to be investigated, which was further than he’d gone in his previous comments on the matter.

The Republicans

There’s a lot going on here. It started out a little messy but a couple of weeks in, the party line on the impeachment inquiry seems to have coalesced into, “It’s a partisan witch hunt!” and stall, stall, stall.

On October 8, the White House counsel wrote back to congressional Democrats’ document subpoenas with an elaborate, eight-page long “hell no.”

Calling the inquiry “constitutionally illegitimate,” the White House is refusing to cooperate. On the substance of the call with the Ukrainian president, the letter concludes, “The record clearly established that the call was completely appropriate and that there is no basis for your inquiry.” The State Department also prevented Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a key player in the text message exchanges, from testifying before congress.

Trump, for his part, has spent the past few days trying to normalize the call with Ukraine and his requests to a foreign government to interfere in a U.S, election by investigating one of his political rivals. Trump’s 2020 campaign has released an ad that spins the phone call as innocent and the impeachment inquiry as an effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election. His Twitter timeline is a litany of tweets about the supposedly partisan nature of the whistleblower’s complaint, making liberal use of the phrase, the “Do Nothing Democrats,” and calling for Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, to be impeached.

Perhaps the most interesting twist, though, is the mixed response of Fox News. Tucker Carlson, a fanatical Trump supporter, co-wrote a column in which he said, “Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent … there’s no way to spin this as a good idea.” On Oct. 10, the New York Times reported that Attorney General William Barr had a private meeting on October 9 with Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox’s parent company. (“Succession” writers, take note.) The morning after the meeting, Trump tweeted angrily in a response to a Fox poll that found 51 percent of Americans think he should be impeached and removed from office. So, all is not well in the right’s political-media nexus; the inquiry is setting teeth on edge, not least the president’s.

How’s it all playing?

All in all, there’s more noise coming from the Republican side of things. For now, though, they’re not winning the public opinion battle. According to our impeachment tracker, support for impeachment has only strengthened over the past couple of weeks. At this writing, 49.3 percent of Americans support it and 43.5 percent oppose.

So for now, the Democrats’ arguments are convincing more voters than Republicans’. But I’ll be interested to see whether the White House efforts to stall and delay will create the impression that Democrats are unfairly persecuting the president. Even Republicans’ and independents’ support of impeachment has increased in recent days, though, according to the polls.

Given a Democratic debate coming up next week, it’s unlikely that Trump will have any reprieve from the talk of his impeachment. We’ll be keeping our eyes glued to his Twitter and our ears perked for the emerging talking points.

FiveThirtyEight: The history of impeachment

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.