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How to Fight the Shifting Impeachment Goalposts

October 24, 2019
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I’ve been warning about the shifting of goalposts from the start of the impeachment inquiry and now we’re seeing it in its most dramatic form (so far).

When the story about Trump’s dealings in Ukraine first surfaced, the Trumpkin defense was “Fake News” this is all “smoke and mirrors.”

Then, when it turned out to be actual, real news, the defense shifted to “this is all overblown, the real transcript will prove there’s nothing there.”

Then the not-a-transcript came out, demonstrating that there was there there. So the defense became, “the whistleblower has no first-hand knowledge of any of this.”

Then the whistleblower report came out and the whistleblower turns out to have carefully documented his/her sources.

So the defense became, “but there was no explicit quid pro quo.”

And now we have evidence, from the president’s own Ukraine envoy, that there was an explicit quid pro quo and everybody knew about it.

Let me preview for you the Trump defenses that are coming soon to a cable studio near you:

  • The quid pro quo wasn’t real because only the U.S. knew it existed. For a quid pro quo to be real, both sides must be party to it.
  • Maybe both sides knew about it, but it was never enforced.
  • Because the quid (withholding military aid) was illegal, then by definition it couldn’t have been an actual thing.
  • Maybe it was illegal and maybe both sides knew about it and maybe it was enforced, but executive authority allows all of this.
  • Maybe executive authority doesn’t actually allow any of this, but the impeachment process in the House was tainted, so whatever the Senate thinks of Trump’s actions, they’re duty-bound to acquit him because they have to think about future precedent.

You see the modus operandi here, right? The president’s defenders will push claim after claim after claim until they finally find one that sticks, at which point they’ll say, “A-ha! He’s innocent!”

At some point in the impeachment process—and as of now it’s probably a 95 percent chance articles of impeachment are passed—someone on Fox is going to say, “Is there videotape of Trump handing Zelensky a Gucci bag full of cash and Zelensky sliding a dossier with BIDEN: NADSEKRETNO on the cover?”

And when the answer is “no,” they’ll claim vindication. That’s how goalpost moving works: You keep pushing the burden of proof further and further out until you finally reach a point where you find a standard the other side can’t meet.

Then, instead of grappling with all of the standards they have met, you claim that the inability to clear the final test invalidates the entire case. In fact, you then studiously ignore all of the lines that they crossed along the way, and pretend that this final standard is the only one that ever really mattered.

There are two ways to deal with the kind of people who move goalposts instead of making arguments in good faith.

The first is this:

  • Recognize that anyone shifting the goalposts is a bad actor who does not deserve engagement.
  • You are never going to “convince” a goalpost shifter, because they aren’t there to be convinced.
  • Impeachment is a political process; what matters is public opinion. So ignore the goalpost shifters and make your case directly to the public.

And the second is:

  • Don’t allow the shifting goalposts to influence the essence of the case.
  • The not-a-transcript call readout was impeachable on its own. No further burden needs to be met.
  • Use the details that emerge from the inquiry to buttress that case, and reinforce that what everyone knows they read was actually what they read.
  • But underscore that you’re adding details to the original case, not reaching to satisfy some new prosecutorial burden.
  • The original story is enough; hammer it over and over and over.

If you were making book on the prospects of Trump being removed from office, then the odds right now would have to be very low. Maybe 1-in-10. Maybe lower than that, even.

But consider that seven weeks ago—barely 50 days—the odds of articles of impeachment being passed against Trump were, at best, 1-in-100. The facts changed, and so the world changed.

Public opinion on impeachment is moving faster than anyone, on either side, can really comprehend. Maybe it’ll plateau. Maybe it’ll reverse. Maybe it’ll keep heading north.

But if support for impeachment and removal is in the high-50s and opposition is in the low-40s, we will be living in a very different world than the one we’re in right now.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.

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