The Corner

White House

Eric Felten on the Uses of Language

At RealClearInvestigations, Eric Felten offers a critique of the House Judiciary Committee’s report on impeachment. Here, to my mind, is his best point:

Even if one accepts the argument that there’s no specifying or cataloguing of impeachable offenses, it would seem that principle creates as much of a problem as it solves for the House impeachment managers. If X is a crime, the managers’ job is to prove that the president committed X; if X is not a crime, the managers must not only prove the president committed X, they have to persuade the Senate — and the public — that X is such an affront to decency and such a threat to the Constitution that it is rightly regarded an impeachable offense.

There are, however, two weaknesses in his case. First, he complains — this is really his central argument — that the Democrats repeatedly use dismissive language without justifying their dismissal, especially by referring to Trump’s beliefs about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election as a “discredited conspiracy theory.” The trouble is, it is a discredited conspiracy theory. It’s such a nutty theory that Felten himself doesn’t try to justify it or even mention it. The words “CrowdStrike” and “server” don’t appear in his article.

Second, there’s Felten’s concluding flourish:

It may be in an effort to make its accusations have the appearance of criminality otherwise missing that the impeachment report makes up a faux presidential statement. The false quote is in the style of the fabricated transcript read by Adam Schiff and later explained away as a “parody” of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky. “The evidence thus demonstrates that President Trump used the powers of his office to make Ukraine an offer it had no real choice but to accept,” according to the impeachment report: “Help me get re-elected or you will not get the military and security assistance and diplomatic support you desperately need from the United States of America.” But, of course, the president never said any such thing. He never said, “Help me get re-elected,” nor did he condition aid on acquiescence to something he hadn’t said.

One can choose whether to refer to the House impeachment report’s false quote as debunked, discredited, or baseless.

Here the problem is that the “false quote” isn’t presented as a quote at all (just as the “fabricated transcript” was not presented as a transcript). Here’s the way the text appears in the House report (see p. 95 here):

The evidence thus demonstrates that President Trump used the powers of his office to make Ukraine an offer it had no real choice but to accept: Help me get re-elected or you will not get the military and security assistance and diplomatic support you desperately need from the United States of America.

The report doesn’t use quotation marks because it is not claiming that the president used those precise words. It is instead characterizing what he did. I would wager that nobody who has read the report has been misled; but if anyone has, it is his own fault. This particular charge by Felten is baseless, and now it has been debunked and discredited.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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