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This Is What It Looks Like When a Birther Becomes President
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This Is What It Looks Like When a Birther Becomes President

The impeachment report reminds us that Donald Trump has always been a conspiracy theorist.

Most days I love my job. Some days (and nights)—when I’m reading the House Democrats’ 300-page impeachment report and the Republicans’ 122-page response—I do not. But it had to be done, and as I read, I was struck once again about how the Ukraine scandal rests on ideas and actions that aren’t merely corrupt, they’re also just plain weird—but also entirely consistent with the persona of the president of the United States. Today’s French Press:

  1. Ukraine, Rudy, and diplomacy in the service of fiction.

  1. A wildly optimistic thought about the (possible) decline of woke Twitter.

Donald Trump is a consistent conspiracy theorist.

As I read through the House impeachment report, I kept having the same, recurring thoughts. This is what happens when the president of the United States is a genuine conspiracy theorist. This is what happens when the president goes one step beyond believing a conspiracy and uses the awesome powers of his office to try to prove a wild fiction. 

Let’s take a step back. Unless you spend much time on MAGA Twitter, you may not be familiar with the full contours of the conspiracy theories surrounding the 2016 election. Like most conspiracy theories, they begin with a statement like this—“Everything you think you know about the election is a lie.” 

And what is the lie? The fundamental “lie” is that Russia intervened in the election at all, much less to help Donald Trump. The “real story” is one of Democratic infighting, Ukrainian meddling, and deep state perfidy. The real story is that the Russians didn’t hack DNC computers, and the proof is out there, in Ukraine. The real story is that the only true “foreign interference” came in the form of the Steele dossier, and the Steele dossier was a Clinton creation. There were never any grounds for believing Russia interfered in the election, and if there were never grounds for believing Russian interference, there were never grounds for investigating the Trump campaign. 

It’s all very strange (after all, the conclusion that Russia interfered in our election isn’t just a “deep state” finding, it’s also the bipartisan finding of congressional committees), but—let’s be honest—it’s not that unusual. Politics is a breeding ground for conspiracies. I’m old enough to distinctly remember a “documentary” called the Clinton Chronicles and a “project” called the Clinton Body Count. During the Clinton administration, a small cottage industry sprang up dedicated to proving that (among other things) the Clinton machine was responsible for dozens of murders and that Clinton actively participated in drug-running. 

And remember the various 9/11 “truther” claims during the George W. Bush presidency? I still run into people who watched (and believed!) the Loose Change YouTube documentary that claimed 9/11 was an inside job. 

Then of course the Obama era generated the birther conspiracy, a wild idea that the president was actually born in Kenya and thus ineligible for the presidency. And while he didn’t invent the theory, who became the most famous and most powerful birther in the land? The current president of the United States. Yes, Donald Trump is a proven, outspoken conspiracy theorist.

This fact explains much about the present scandal. Why did such an odd combination of characters find their way into the impeachment report—from former Hill writer John Solomon, to Fox host Sean Hannity, and of course to Rudy Giuliani himself? Why were these individuals looped into matters of international diplomacy? Because they were willing to feed parts of the overarching conspiracy theory. They played into Trump’s worst instincts. 

In my view, the most insightful story about this entire affair was published all the way back on September 29—when the New York Times wrote about the tug of war inside the administration between those who told Trump the truth and those who fed him lies. His former Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert put it vividly:

“It is completely debunked,” Mr. Bossert said of the Ukraine theory on ABC. Speaking with George Stephanopoulos, Mr. Bossert blamed Mr. Giuliani for filling the president’s head with misinformation. “I am deeply frustrated with what he and the legal team is doing and repeating that debunked theory to the president. It sticks in his mind when he hears it over and over again, and for clarity here, George, let me just again repeat that it has no validity.”


Other former aides said separately on Sunday that the president had a particular weakness for conspiracy theories involving Ukraine, which in the past three years has become the focus of far-right media outlets and political figures. Mr. Trump was more willing to listen to outside advisers like Mr. Giuliani than his own national security team.

My friend Ben Shapiro has asked a helpful question throughout the process—is the Ukraine scandal more about 2020 or about 2016? In other words, is the true target of Trump’s anger the cloud over his 2016 election, and Joe Biden is collateral damage, or is Joe Biden the true target, and the 2016 election a side interest? 

The media, in the main, has connected the Ukraine scandal to 2020, which casts the story as a straight-up tale of political corruption. Trump’s team tried to get help from Russians and Russian assets in 2016, and now that he’s president, he’s trying to solicit foreign help to meddle in the next election. 

There is, of course, a strong element of truth to this narrative. Trump’s team did seek help from Russians and alleged Russian assets, and Trump has of course openly and brazenly called for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. But I suspect the true answer to Ben’s question is that 2016 was first and foremost in Trump’s mind. After all, he mentioned the mythical Crowdstrike server before he brought up the Bidens in his “perfect” call with Zelensky. As the Washington Examiner’s Jerry Dunleavy reported Tuesday, Hope Hicks told the FBI that the intelligence assessment of Russian interference was Trump’s “Achilles heel.”

“Trump thought the fact that the intelligence community assessed the Russians had interfered in the 2016 election was his Achilles heel,” FBI investigators say Hicks told them in March 2018. “Even if it had no impact on the election, Trump thought that was what people would think. He thought the assessment took away from what he did.”

To say that Trump believes a conspiracy theory is not to argue that there’s nothing worth investigating about the Steele dossier or the role of Ukrainians in American investigations. The Steele dossier was a malignant document that did much damage to the American body politic. And we do need to know how the 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign began and whether it was conducted properly. We do need to fully understand the role of foreign actors, including Ukrainians. But one can be concerned with potential Russian disinformation in the Steele dossier without believing the DNC hack was an inside job or that foreign allies possess mythical servers. 

But reading the impeachment evidence, it’s clear that Trump was conducting international diplomacy not to ferret out the truth, but rather to coerce an ally into supporting a lie. When Trump sought Ukrainian help to discredit a political rival, he was being consistent. He sees nothing wrong with seeking foreign aid against a domestic political rival. When Trump sought Ukrainian help to prove his conspiracy theory, he was also being consistent. This is what it looks like when a birther becomes president. 

Do we dare hope? Could the influence of woke Twitter be on the decline?

There are many interesting storylines in the Democratic primary, but here’s one—woke Twitter is colliding with electoral reality, and electoral reality is winning. If you follow politics closely, one of the dominant stories of the Trump era has been the Democrats’ stampede to the left. 

It’s not enough to defend Obamacare and perhaps expand it with a public option. No, social justice demands sweeping away private insurance in favor of Medicare for All. 

It’s not enough to oppose Trump’s border wall, protest family separation, and seek legislation to protect Dreamers. No, social justice demands the decriminalization of illegal entry, a halt to deportations, and perhaps even the removal of border barriers.

It’s not enough to expand college subsidies and perhaps extend free public education to community college. No, social justice demands free college and forgiveness of existing student debt.

I could go on—social justice is now demanding an end to the Electoral College, gun confiscation, destruction of the filibuster, and court-packing. Each of these positions—wildly extreme to much of the rest of the world—is conventional wisdom in influential segments of woke Twitter, and make no mistake, journalists and campaign staffers pay close attention to woke Twitter.

But it seems that rank-and-file Democratic voters don’t—at least not yet. Bernie Sanders is the leader of a distinct movement, and his numbers have stayed relatively stable, but catering to the far left is proving far less fruitful to the other candidates. I highlighted Elizabeth Warren’s freefall and Kamala Harris’s collapse yesterday, but it’s worth citing again this quote from the New York Times story of Harris’s troubled campaign:

And it’s worth remembering this detailed look at the 2020 Democratic primary electorate:

The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project. This latter group has the numbers to decide the Democratic presidential nomination in favor of a relatively moderate establishment favorite, as it has often done in the past.

This dynamic is one of the key reasons why Joe Biden—woke Twitter’s least favorite contender—has stubbornly maintained his lead. It’s one of the reasons why Pete Buttigieg is enjoying a bit of a second surge—weeks after dismantling Medicare for All during the October Democratic debate. 

Make no mistake, Twitter will remain powerful. It’s not just a source of immediate feedback, it’s also (even more importantly) a source of peer pressure. Campaign staffers are all on Twitter. Progressive activists are all on Twitter. Journalists are all on Twitter. It creates a closed ecosystem of progressive peer feedback where reputations are made or broken. That’s not changing any time soon (and there’s a similar dynamic on the right, though not quite as strong). But it’s one thing to feel like you’re on the vanguard, leading the people. It’s another thing entirely to realize that you’re so far out front that you’re leaving the people, and that’s exactly what woke Twitter is doing for the Democrats. 

One last thing … 

I’ve never seen a play quite like this. Just to prove that I’m not the only NBA fan in conservative Twitter, I’ll leave it to Tim Carney to sum up the weirdness. Enjoy:

Photo credit: Donald Trump by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.