Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
Monday’s congressional hearing on Russian interference in the 2016 election was a day of historic firsts.
It was the first time that a U.S. President’s campaign team was proclaimed to be under investigation for its ties with a foreign adversary. It was the first time intelligence officials had to state that accusations a sitting President made about his predecessor – Donald Trump’s tweets that Barack Obama had wiretapped his building – were completely groundless.
And it was the first time that a hearing was interrupted with a new lie from the sitting President about the hearing itself, as the official @POTUS account tweeted midway through: “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.” After that tweet was read out loud, FBI director James Comey and NSA head Michael Rogers debunked it by simply reminding the audience what they had said hours before.
This, sadly, is a mark of democratic progress under the Trump administration.
After months of being told they live in a post-truth era, Americans were granted a serious fact-finding inquiry, one in which Mr. Trump’s lies died upon arrival. Watching the Russian interference hearings was like seeing opposing realities collide: the first, the cautious and methodical world of Mr. Comey, Mr. Rogers and the representatives who questioned them; the second, the bizarro world of “alternative facts” from which Mr. Trump beams in fabrications.
Since July 27, 2016 – the day Mr. Trump told Russia at a news conference that they would be rewarded for releasing Hillary Clinton’s e-mails – Mr. Trump’s primary mode of public communication has been Twitter. He held no news conferences between July, 2016 (the same month, as Mr. Comey revealed Monday, that his campaign fell under FBI investigation) and just before his inauguration. Even after taking office, pressers have been rare. Instead, Mr. Trump tweets, reducing everything from threats to foreign countries to domestic conspiracy theories to ruminations on The Apprentice, all in 140 characters or less.
Twitter has proven an ideal medium for a narcissistic liar under federal investigation. Mr. Trump’s tweets cannot be ignored: he is the President, and every tweet has the potential to tank stocks and inflame foreign powers.
But it is difficult for journalists to challenge the tweets directly. Mr. Trump’s Twitter is a press conference without a press. There are no follow-up questions, no spontaneous back and forth, no accountability on the President’s end. Instead, desperate reporters parse everything from the tweet’s punctuation to Mr. Trump’s brand of cellphone before futilely seeking clarification from press secretary Sean Spicer, who often refers them back to the enigmatic tweet. Power lies with Mr. Trump, who exploits the brevity of Twitter by using it to build murky yet self-serving narratives.
During the hearing, that power began to wane. From the opening questions, focusing on the President’s tweeted fabrications about a wiretapped Trump Tower, to the midway debunking of his own tweet about the hearing, the medium no longer became a tool of propaganda, but a means of self-indictment.
On Monday, Mr. Trump was forced to contend with damning official and public proceedings over which he had little control. The hearing opened with a chronological history of the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia, covering everything from financial transactions to potential collusion with hackers to Mr. Trump’s deference to a dictator. In damning testimonies, Mr. Comey and Mr. Rogers confirmed that the campaign team was under investigation while noting how Mr. Trump’s behaviour had alienated U.S. allies. There was nothing for Mr. Trump to do but lie about it on Twitter – but then that old fallback, too, was stripped away. His tweets were reduced to evidence of his own mendacity, falsehoods disproved in proceedings the whole country could see.
During the hearing, Mr. Comey noted the brazenness of Russian interference, stating that the Kremlin did not seem to care if the U.S. knew of their actions. That mindset mirrors the brazenness of the Trump team, who often lie without correction or consequence. Flagrant lies are how autocrats flaunt power: it is not merely the message of the lie that matters, but its shameless delivery, as it implies that both public reaction and truth itself are irrelevant to the regime’s hold.
On Monday, that grip loosened as Mr. Trump encountered a narrative he could not spin. The President has a new reality TV show; only this time around, reality itself is the star.Report Typo/Error
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