One of the more revealing quotes to emerge from Donald Trump’s inner circle in the period around the 2020 election came from his attorney Rudy Giuliani in October 2020. Giuliani had handed over to the New York Post material purportedly obtained from a laptop that had belonged to Joe Biden’s son Hunter and was asked about doing so by the New York Times.
He chose the Post, Giuliani said, because “either nobody else would take it, or if they took it, they would spend all the time they could to try to contradict it before they put it out.”
In other words, he turned to the right-wing tabloid because he didn’t want the information in his possession to be vetted for authenticity or offered in a broader context. He wanted it presented in a way that would do the most damage to Joe Biden. As he put it to a radio interviewer in the same period, “even if it isn’t accurate, the American people are entitled to know it.”
It was inevitable, given how media has evolved in the United States, that we would reach such a point. For years — and particularly since Trump reshaped the standard of acceptability for unfounded allegations — the right-wing media has operated as a bubble, a self-contained universe of argument and evidence where claims are reinforced far more often than they are undercut. (One of the central rhetorical tenets of that universe, of course, is that it’s traditional media outlets that have a blinkered, limited understanding of the world — which is true, in the sense that we are constrained by the boundaries of reality.)
It has become easy for arguments that comport with the expectations or desires of the political right to survive in the right-wing media Petri dish. It’s become similarly easy for them to survive indefinitely, with consumers of right-wing media trained to dismiss or ignore fact-checks or corrections or context that would undercut that rhetoric — particularly since the arguments are reinforced across right-wing media outlets, creating an unwarranted sense of reinforcement.
But even as that bubble has strengthened and swallowed up more of the right-wing rhetorical fringe, it still does come into contact with the real world at times. And that means that Republicans — particularly House Republicans — are developing unusual or remarkable tools for protecting their arguments.
Consider House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) announcement Tuesday that the release of footage captured by security cameras at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, would blur the faces of those shown. This wasn’t a new declaration; he’d made this point previously. But this time, Johnson framed the move as being centered on ensuring that those inside the Capitol wouldn’t be “retaliated against and be charged” by the Justice Department.
This doesn’t make much sense. The Justice Department’s had the video for years and used it to charge various actors. Instead, as Johnson spokesman (and former White House communications staffer and former Fox News executive) Raj Shah clarified, the real goal was to “prevent all forms of retaliation against private citizens from any nongovernmental actors.” In other words, to prevent groups like Sedition Hunters from developing new leads on participants in the riot that occurred that day and which has, on multiple occasions, helped the Justice Department build cases against rioters.
Johnson seemingly wants to release the footage because the Republican base has called for it, believing that the footage will allow them to construct an argument that the riot was a function not of Trump supporters but government actors or leftists. It will allow them to do that, of course, since the bar for “proving” this untrue thing is so low. (We’ve already seen them try it.) But Johnson wants the evidence this footage constitutes to be used only in a context that’s helpful to his base, not harmful. So it gets blurred.
A different lens on this effort to control evidence and rhetoric comes from Johnson’s allies who are leading the Republican effort to build a case for impeaching President Biden. As with the Capitol riot, there is already a broadly accepted belief on the right: namely, that Biden is a corrupt actor who benefited from his son’s business deals. There’s already an appetite, based on that belief, for Biden to be impeached. So now, people like House Oversight Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) are trying to backfill evidence in support of that belief.
Comer presented several claims in the past few weeks that more than meet the standard of evidence required by the right-wing media universe. His assertions that Joe Biden was paid some quarter of a million dollars from America’s enemies (as he likes to put it) have been largely accepted and promoted without question on Fox News and elsewhere. But it’s nonsense; it depends fully on arguing that money being repaid to Biden by family members to whom he made loans is suspect or nefarious or, at least, of enormous benefit to Biden.
“You can loan people money,” Comer argued on Newsmax on Monday evening. “If they pay you back, then you benefited directly from the influence-peddling scheme.”
This came hours after The Washington Post and other outlets had noted that Comer’s most recent charge against Biden — that the president had in 2018 received multiple payments directly from Hunter Biden’s law firm — was ridiculous. The three payments, amounting to a little over $4,000, were reimbursements to Joe Biden for a truck he helped his son buy. But Comer presented this repayment as being financially beneficial to Biden and evidence of the president’s corruption. (For what it’s worth, $200,000 of the quarter of a million dollars Comer talks about was in repayment of a loan Joe made to his brother James and was made possible thanks to James Biden’s being paid as part of a business deal with an American company.)
At a news conference Tuesday, Comer again tried to present this debunked argument as though it was still viable.
“This week, we revealed how Hunter Biden’s corporate entity, Owasco PC, made direct monthly payments to Joe Biden,” Comer said. “Owasco PC is under investigation by the Justice Department for tax evasion and other serious crimes. Chinese and other foreign entities funneled millions of dollars into Hunter’s Owasco PC, and some of this money landed in Joe Biden’s bank account.”
By extension, if a criminal has a subscription to this newspaper, I am culpable for his activity when The Post pays me my salary.
“These direct monthly payments to Joe Biden,” Comer continued, “are part of a pattern revealing Joe Biden knew about, participated in, and benefited from his family’s shady business schemes.”
Again, the “benefit” was “being repaid money he was owed.” The “knew about” and “participated in” claims, meanwhile, remain unproven. But they are treated as factual by Comer and by the right-wing media ecosystem, because they are the tenets of the conclusion to which they’ve all seemingly already agreed.
The news conference ended with Comer and his colleagues taking no questions. Comer would not be forced to defend his exaggerations and misinformation. Instead, he joined right-wing commentator Benny Johnson’s podcast where he simply reiterated those same claims.
Johnson and his colleagues are rapidly approaching a difficult point in their impeachment push, though. At some point, they will need to decide whether to file articles of impeachment against Biden. It’s clear that a lot of Republicans are worried about what happens with the unstoppable force of demand for impeachment reaches the immovable object of reality. I guess we’ll see.
Meanwhile, the New York Post continues to do what Giuliani had hoped for back in 2020, presenting right-wing claims without doing anything to try to contradict them. The paper’s front page on Tuesday morning, after Comer’s claims about the payments to Biden had been debunked, declared that “[a]fter being paid by foreign companies, Hunter’s law firm gave Joe Biden monthly fees.”
Reality kept out of the bubble for another 24 hours, at least.