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The Rules of the Game

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This post is about how Donald Trump and the Republican party — and most especially the Republican party’s unwavering support for Trump — have broken the legacy media in this country.

This is CCN’s headline story this morning:

New transcripts of witness testimony and news reports revealing key details on the Ukraine scandal timeline show in vivid detail the way President Donald Trump and top officials maneuvered behind the scenes to block aid to Ukraine as the President sought an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden.


The new revelations, coming at a time when half of Americans support impeaching and removing the President even though impeachment proceedings have not moved the needle of public opinion, underscored the problem for Trump and his supporters in Congress: Public hearings in the impeachment inquiry may be in the rearview mirror, but new details about his pressure campaign on Ukraine continue to trickle out.

The developments on Tuesday illuminated the fact that there’s still much to learn about the President’s actions regarding Ukraine as the House races toward a potential vote on impeachment by Christmas.

The President’s claims of innocence looked even more incredulous [sic] Tuesday night after The New York Times reported that Trump released the hold on Ukraine aid after he was briefed on the whistleblower report outlining his dealings with Ukraine.

That report and newly released transcripts of impeachment witness testimony undercut key arguments that the Republicans have been making as they have defended the President, who cast the impeachment inquiry during his Florida rally Tuesday night as a “scam,” a “witchhunt” and a “hoax.”

During the impeachment hearings earlier this month, Republicans spooled out various theories about why the White House might have frozen aid to Ukraine — from the notion that Trump was concerned about corruption to the idea that he wanted to see more financial contributions to the Ukraine aid from other foreign countries.

But the timeline revealed Tuesday, in conjunction with the transcript of testimony from Office of Management and Budget Official Mark Sandy, outlines an indisputably clear set of facts about the bizarre way the Ukraine aid was handled.

The confusion that Sandy and other line-level OMB aides felt about why the Ukraine aid was being withheld, along with their inability to get answers, showed how the Trump administration’s unusual enterprise was shrouded in secrecy, even from the very people who were handling the money.

First the timeline: We now know that White House budget office took its first official action to withhold $250 million in aid to Ukraine on the evening of July 25, according to a House Budget Committee summary of the office’s documents.

That was the very same day that Trump spoke by phone with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, prefacing his request for an investigation of the 2016 election with the now infamous phrase “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” Agencies had been notified at a July 18 meeting that the aid had been frozen by the President, a week before the call.

Sandy, the Office of Management and Budget official who signed off on the initial Ukraine aid freeze before a Trump political appointee took over that task, testified that the President’s interest in the aid dated back to June, but that he couldn’t get an explanation of why the aid was withheld in July or August.

The request was so unusual that Sandy immediately told his boss that the freeze could violate an obscure federal law known as the Impoundment Control Act, which prohibits a sitting president from unilaterally withholding funds that were appropriated by Congress.

And so on and so forth.

That Trump illegally held up military aid to Ukraine in order to bribe and extort that nation into announcing that it was launching an investigation into the Bidens is not a matter of factual dispute at this point. It’s been proven beyond a reasonable doubt by overwhelming waves of evidence coming from multiple sources.

Trump’s ongoing denials would be treated, by a healthy news media, as what they are, which are obvious lies.

But the traditional conventions of mainstream journalism don’t allow this, because doing so would break the frame that is a mandatory part of reporting on high-level national politics. That frame is that Democrats and Republicans are having a dispute about some highly controversial and important question, and that it’s the media’s job to report on that dispute without taking sides as to the answer to that question, period. And this remains the case even or perhaps especially in instances where the question in dispute isn’t really a question at all.

Accurate reporting in this context would note that Trump has in fact done what he’s been accused of doing, that the Republican party and 40% of the country don’t care, and that literally no amount of further superfluous evidence on the non-existent “question” of whether or not he’s done it has any relevance to the latter fact.

But again, straightforward reporting on that latter fact is also impossible, because that would require reporting that, in various fundamental ways, the American political system doesn’t work any more. One striking illustration of this is how the current impeachment process is as a formal matter an elaborate farce, because the Republican party and 40% of the public remain quite literally indifferent to how many impeachable offenses Donald Trump has committed and will continue to commit.

That’s the real story, but the real story can’t be reported, at least in any straightforward way, because doing so would violate the rules of the legacy media game. The most important rule of the game is that everyone must assume that both major political parties are ultimately playing within the rules laid down by our legal system.

This rule is based on a false premise. Acknowledging that would make the game impossible to play any more. But it remains the only game in town, so everybody keeps playing.

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