WASHINGTON — President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president was an impeachable abuse of power.
I repeat: President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president was an impeachable abuse of power.
Once again, President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president was an impeachable abuse of power.
No apologies for the redundancy. Trump is trying to gaslight Americans by claiming, over and over again, that the smoking-gun evidence against him was actually a "perfect" phone call. He said it 12 times in brief Oval Office remarks Wednesday as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto quietly looked on, and four more times at their joint press conference that poor Niinisto had to endure as Trump went off the rails. He has said it repeatedly on Twitter, often in ALL CAPS. Since the rough transcript of the call was released last week, he's said it virtually whenever he's been within yelling distance of a microphone.
The most dishonest president we've ever had wants you to believe him, not your lying eyes.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which victims are led to doubt the evidence of their senses and the soundness of their reason. The term was coined in the 1930s, deriving from the title of a British play, but the practice is as old as human history. Trump apparently fancies himself a master of it.
He understands that repetition is one of the keys to making people believe something that is patently untrue. That's what he does with the derisive nicknames he gives to those he sees as standing in his way. He did it with "Crooked Hillary" Clinton, despite the complete absence of evidence that she had committed any crime. He does it with the "fake news" label he stamps on any story he doesn't like. By saying something over and over, he implants the message.
Trump is trying to do the same thing now in a desperate — and probably hopeless — attempt to avoid going down in history as just the third U.S. president to be impeached. When the phone call is brought up, he doesn't want you to think "abuse of power" or "extortion" or "high crimes and misdemeanors." He wants you to think "perfect."
To a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Trump's only real talent, and it is a considerable one, is as an illusionist. He created the appearance of being one of the biggest developers in New York by getting his name plastered on a lot of buildings that other people own. He created the appearance of being a genius businessman by playing one on television. He created the appearance of being a mega-tycoon worth upwards of $10 billion by, according to financial sleuths, simply lying about his net worth.
So now, facing impeachment, Trump resorts to the one thing he knows how to do at an expert level: tell lies openly, brazenly and frequently enough to make some people believe him. He's going to keep saying there was nothing wrong with the phone call, although obviously there was. He's going to keep saying that Joe Biden and his son Hunter are "corrupt," even though there is not a shred of evidence to suggest this slander is true.
He's also going to continue to look for "proof" that Russia didn't really help him win the 2016 election, which clearly it did. That may have less to do with any communications strategy, however, and more to do with Trump's fragile ego.
The gaslighting won't work with the Democratic leadership in the House. Their outrage at the way Trump ignored U.S. national security interests and the will of Congress, in an attempt to leverage the production of dirt on a potential opponent in the coming election, is genuine. The president might be tempted to infer from Speaker Nancy Pelosi's previous reluctance to utter the word "impeachment" that she is halfhearted about the process she has now begun. If so, he doesn't know the woman he's dealing with.
Over time, however, Trump can incrementally eat away at public opinion, which has shifted dramatically in favor of impeachment over the past week. That is why Pelosi and her lieutenants have to be purposeful, disciplined and vocal in countering Trump's message with one of their own.
"I would like you to do us a favor though," Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the call. Those 10 words cut through all the fog Trump is trying to generate. Say them as often as you can, and say them loud.
Eugene Robinson's email address is email@example.com.