Democrats have hoped that the impeachment hearings might bridge the vast divide between the how the ideological factions in the country view President Donald Trump’s wrongdoing. On Wednesday, as Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, read his opening statement, liberal Twitter users buzzed optimistically that it might finally be the moment.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?” Sondland said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
“Holy cow Gordon Sondland going full John Dean in opening statement,” MSNBC host Ari Melber tweeted.
“There is a Trump presidency before today and a Trump presidency after today,” Anand Giridharadas, an author and Time editor-at-large, tweeted.
But there are two impeachment hearings unfolding in the nation's capital. One, carried out by the Democrats, is designed to ascertain the truth as to whether Trump sought a "quid pro quo" deal with Ukraine to get the country to investigate Joe Biden and the 2016 presidential election in exchange for aid money. The other, being carried out simultaneously by the Republicans, is quite different. Instead of trying to learn the truth, it seeks to create not just a counternarrative but a completely separate reality.
Each round of GOP questioning is not meant to interrogate the witnesses, which today included Sondland, but instead to create moments that can be flipped into Fox News segments, shared as bite-size Facebook posts, or dropped into 4chan threads. Their alternate universe — built from baseless online conspiracy theories and reading the tea leaves of Trump’s Twitter feed — dominates Fox News and Facebook. And the Republicans’ strategy, as confusing and bizarre as it may seem to those on the outside, is working.
Here’s TrumpWorld’s version of the impeachment narrative: Claims of Russian meddling in the 2016 election were part of a hoax orchestrated by the Democrats to cover up their own collusion with Ukraine to block Trump’s presidential campaign. A 2017 Politico story written by Kenneth Vogel and Ukraine-based reporter David Stern and a series of articles by John Solomon in the Hill earlier this year prove this, Trump’s defenders say. The depositions for the impeachment inquiry were conducted in a basement of the Capitol building “like some kind of strange cult,” in the words of Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, to continue that cover-up. Every witness who testifies to the contrary, like Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman or Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine, is spreading unreliable hearsay. Democrats are playing dirty by hiding the whistleblower.
At every hearing, Nunes, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, and Steve Castor, a lawyer for House Republicans, put witnesses through the same process. They ask the witnesses if it was reasonable for Trump to think that Ukrainians were “out to get him.” They ask about former DNC contractor Alexandra Chalupa, whom right-wing conspiracy theorists have long connected to claims about Democratic election-meddling. They ask about a black ledger from Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort — a document that reportedly contains evidence of off-the-books payments from former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to Manafort. The witnesses typically stammer back, confused and unable to understand the point of the questions.
Nunes opened his questioning of Sondland on Wednesday this week with a complaint he’s issued at all five hearings so far. "That's why we've subpoenaed the DNC operatives we've subpoenaed," Nunes said on Wednesday. "Who were the DNC operatives that dirtied up the Trump campaign in 2016?"
During Tuesday’s hearing this week, Nunes and Castor repeatedly tried to probe Vindman about the identity of the whistleblower. Vindman refused to answer questions that might identify that person.
“You can plead the Fifth, but you’re here to answer questions and you’re here under subpoena,” Nunes said. “So you can either answer the question or you can plead the Fifth.” Vindman did not plead the Fifth, since Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the Intelligence Committee, affirmed that he did not have to. He continued to explain why he could not answer Nunes’ questions — because he does not know the whistleblower’s identity.
Last Wednesday, Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, struggled to understand Castor’s questions about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. “The run-up to the 2016 election — there are many facts that remain unresolved, agreed?” Castor said, trying to get the ambassador to agree the Democrats had done something suspicious in 2016.
“I'm sorry. What's the question?” Taylor replied.
These exchanges may seem irrelevant, but they create content for the pro-Trump information machine, which is running parallel to the hearings. Nunes’ probes of Vindman were the perfect hook for right-wing outlets like Gateway Pundit to publish stories connecting the lieutenant colonel to the CIA officer and former National Security Council staffer whom pro-Trump media has accused of being the whistleblower. (BuzzFeed News does not know the identity of the whistleblower.) Those stories have gone viral, despite Facebook telling BuzzFeed News earlier this month that it would be blocking the CIA officer’s name. Since it was published on Monday, Gateway Pundit’s article had been shared a thousand times on the platform.
“Well, ambassador, ... I have some bad news for you. TV ratings are way down. Way down. I don’t hold it personally. But whatever drug deal the Democrats are cooking up here on the dais, the American people aren’t buying,” Nunes said on Tuesday.
But the American people are watching it. With an average total daily audience of 1.697 million viewers, Fox News had its highest-rated week of the year and its best ratings since last year’s midterms. Trailing behind Fox are MSNBC (1.294 million) and CNN (823,000).
Some Fox News anchors like Bret Baier, Neil Cavuto, and Chris Wallace, have broken ranks, declaring that the evidence collected so far is damning for President Trump. But the channel’s biggest hosts seem to be counting on their viewers not having watched the channel earlier in the day.
“If you’re like most Americans, you didn’t watch today’s impeachment charade,” Fox’s Sean Hannity said after Tuesday’s hearing. “Here’s the big takeaway: another huge dud. Americans are tuning out in a big way.”
Hannity called the hearing an embarrassing spectacle for the whole country. He railed against the Democrats, called the testimony hearsay, and claimed the ratings were dropping with every new hearing. But online, it’s Hannity’s version of events that many Americans are following.
Of the top 10 most-shared stories this week that featured the word "impeachment," three were from satirical sites. The most-shared story, from Irish satire site Waterford Whispers News, bears the title "Beyoncé Set To Perform At Trump Impeachment Halftime Show" (930,800 engagements). According to social metrics site CrowdTangle, apart from Waterford Whispers’ own Facebook page, the story’s two biggest sharers were from an anti-Trump Facebook page, We Resist, and a libertarian-leaning meme page, Vote Nobody 2020. Of the top 10 stories this week featuring the word “impeachment,” two were published by a Christian satire site, the Babylon Bee: “Capitol Building To Be Decorated As Giant Circus Tent For Duration Of Impeachment Hearings” (795,000 engagements) and “In Genius Move, Trump Supports Impeachment, Forcing Democrats To Oppose” (263,300 engagements).
For stories mentioning Schiff and Nunes, engagements were much lower, particularly for those that featured Nunes. The top post this week about Schiff was from the New York Post, titled “Adam Schiff Is Wasting The Nation's Time With Impeachment Hearings" (563,900 engagements). In the top 10 most-engaged stories about Schiff is one post titled “National Poll: Is It Time To Investigate Adam Schiff?” (183,000 engagements). The engagement with Nunes coverage trends toward stories more favorable to Democrats; the top story is a Fox News article titled “Impeachment Witness Scolds Nunes For Calling Him Mister: 'Lt. Col. Vindman, Please'” (74,900 engagements). Right behind that is a Slate piece titled “Impeachment Hearings, Day 2: Nunes, Stefanik Pretend To Be ‘Gagged.’” (50,200 engagements).
As for articles mentioning the witnesses by name, Vindman and Yovanovitch have been targeted the most heavily. The second-most-shared story about Vindman was a Breitbart piece titled “Alexander Vindman Admits Making Up Parts Of Trump Call Summary” (97,300 engagements). The top story about Yovanovitch was by the New York Post, titled “Marie Yovanovitch Admits Obama Admin Prepped Her On Hunter Biden” (141,100 engagements), which was shared 15,000 times from the Texas for Donald Trump 2020 Facebook page and 10,000 times from the Silent Majority page.
For every piece on Facebook about impeachment from a mainstream publication, there are dozens of unhinged right-wing conspiracies going viral on the social network. A post with a transcript from Rush Limbaugh’s radio show titled “George Kent Made The Case For Investigating The Bidens” (15,000 engagements) was ranked third among this week's stories with the most engagement about George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who testified publicly last week. “Impeachment Witness Bill Taylor Admits: I Can 'Tell You What I Heard From People'” (37,600 engagements) by right-wing news site Western Journal was the third-most-shared story about Taylor.
In terms of native Facebook content, the situation is even more dire. Posts on public right-wing pages that contain the word “impeachment" are being shared hundreds of thousands of times. The conversation about the hearings has been led by pages for Dan Bongino, a Spygate truther and conservative radio host, Glenn Beck’s Blaze Media, and Donald Trump. Among the most popular impeachment content following every hearing is Rev. Franklin Graham’s Facebook page.
“That our politicians would bring this kind of harm to our country over a phone call, with the world watching, is unbelievable. As Christians, as those who follow and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, let us pray throughout all of these proceedings. Pray for our nation, pray for our leaders, and pray for President Donald J. Trump,” Graham posted last Thursday. (His note has been shared 157,000 times.)
During every hearing, Graham calls on Christian users to pray for the president.
“It makes me sick to my stomach. We’re now in the second week of the impeachment inquiry, and this is just dividing our country even further. The President’s enemies are focused on destroying him and his presidency regardless of the damage it does to our nation,” he posted Tuesday (103,000 shares).
On Wednesday, pro-Trump influencers were figuring out the counternarrative for Sondland’s testimony. “The President just walked up to the WH press with his handwritten notes from the call with Amb. Sondland,” far-right influencer Benny Johnson wrote in a tweet, which was retweeted more than 1,000 times within the first hour it was posted. “‘It's all over!’ Trump declares on Impeachment.”
Pro-Trump influencer Terrence K. Williams, in a tweet that’s been retweeted over 4,000 times, wrote this morning: “I DONT CARE WHAT SONDLAND IS TALKING ABOUT! JOE BIDEN & HUNTER BIDEN SHOULD BE TESTIFYING! THE FAKE WHISTLEBLOWER SHOULD BE TESTIFYING!”
The top post about Sondland on Reddit’s r/The_Donald was of a clip of the transcript of the call between Trump and Sondland. The poster argued that Trump had explicitly said he wants nothing from Ukraine and stated “no quid pro quo” multiple times.
And on 4chan, users are fighting over exactly what Sondland’s testimony might mean for Trump’s presidency. One user created a thread titled “The expectation is that the GOP Senate will likely push for Trump to resign.”
Users pushed back, dismissing the idea completely: “Imagine thinking Trump would ever give up. Imagine being a degenerate fake news piece of shit spouting your bullshit speculative opinions each and every day like Bret Baier. These people are sick in the fucking head.”