WASHINGTON—On Tuesday evening, the day when Congress began for only the fourth time in U.S. history to draft articles of impeachment against a president, Donald Trump was onstage at a rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
These rallies are where he seems most obviously comfortable, and they are where he provides the best opportunity for public consideration of his thoughts — if his presidency has been defined in part by brief headline-making tweets, it has become equally associated with marathon rally improvisations.
In this particular moment, he was engaging one of his signature rhetorical tools: mockery. The targets were two of his favourites, former FBI agents Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who were once lovers and who it has been revealed privately texted each other about their distaste for Trump. At times he has imagined and publicly reenacted their passion for each other based around their plotting against him. At one previous rally he actually faked an orgasm in his impression of Page.
In this instance, he restrained himself to a few breathless recitations of their love for each other and hatred for him.
“Remember Lisa, I love you so much Lisa, please, please, please. I’ve never loved anyone like you. We won’t allow this to happen. Lisa. Please tell me you love me,” Trump said. “I love you. Peter. I love you,” Trump said.
And then, breaking character, he offered this: “Did I hear he needed a restraining order after this whole thing, to keep him away from the Lisa? That’s what I heard. I don’t know if it’s true. The fake news will never report it,” he said. “No, I heard Peter Strzok needed a restraining order to keep him away from his once lover,” he repeated.
Why would Trump say something like that if it wasn’t true?
It wasn’t true, as Page clarified. “This is a lie. Nothing like this ever happened,” she tweeted.
By now, Trump saying something that is false is almost unremarkable. Coming out of the mouth of any previous president, this one might have stood out as a personal attack for its apparent callousness, though those things are part of the well-known package with Trump by now — possibly even part of the appeal.
But this was part of a larger rumination on the inspector general’s report into Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI investigation that eventually led into the Mueller report, and formed part of a larger Trump narrative.
“Folks, they spied on our campaign. They spied,” Trump said, though the report found no such thing. “You have great people in the FBI, but not in leadership,” Trump said, an apparent shot at FBI Director Christopher Wray who had said in an interview that the report found no evidence of bias in the investigation. Later, Trump called FBI agents “scum” who “destroyed the lives” of some of his campaign associates. “They knew right at the beginning that it was all a frame-up, a setup, but they hid it so that nobody could see it,” he said.
That is not what the report said. Though the inspector general did find serious errors in warrant applications, it found no frame up or cover up: “We concluded that (Assitant FBI Director Bill) Priestap’s exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision.”
Yet Trump, at his rally, seemed to be saying that the inspector general’s report had proved the FBI investigation was a biased attempt to prevent him from being elected.
The report said, in plain language, there was no evidence of political bias. Trump holds it up as evidence of the political bias he has been alleging all along.
Or take his claim, at the rally, on the day a court blocked his plan to divert military spending to his border wall, that “we’re building it and we have the money coming in from the military” and that despite the opposition of Democrats, “we’ve started winning in court.”
It is no more true than his comment about the restraining order.
This seems similar to Trump’s insistence, throughout this impeachment process and again in Hershey on Tuesday, that he’d be exonerated if people would only “read the transcript.” Yet, it was the words in that reconstructed transcript that caused people who worked for him to testify they were alarmed. It was those words that led many to see evidence of abuse of power.
It may be possible to claim that there is an explanation that shows those words are more innocent than they appear — though the investigation seemed to yield more context pointing many to the opposite conclusion — but that is not what Trump has claimed. He says they clearly demonstrate innocence. That they are “perfect.”
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And this approach, the claim that the truth is the opposite of what the words on the page say — that the call was perfect, that the courts are onside, that the FBI was spying on him as a political ploy, that one agent got a restraining order against another — seems to work, at least in part, on its intended audience.
Why would Trump say it if it wasn’t true?
At the Hershey rally — there in the pivotal swing state of Pennsylvania where the election may well be decided — a woman spoke to an ABC news crew about the impeachment investigation: “I’ll speak for myself as a Trump supporter, I believe in him. And I don’t believe he’s dumb enough to say something in front of all those people that would actually get him in trouble.”