The Trumpworld ‘election interference’ argument is ridiculous

One of the patterns of the Donald Trump era of American politics is that it’s tricky to gauge when a bit of rhetoric is worth taking seriously. Trump says so many things that deviate so widely from reality that, for most of us, addressing each one might be a full-time enterprise.

But on occasion, a particular bit of rhetoric becomes so pervasive that it demands attention. And so it is with Trump’s claims that the various investigations and indictments he faces are efforts at “election interference.”

The immediate prompt for dismantling this repeated argument comes not from Trump but from his attorney/spokesman Alina Habba. Habba was appearing Monday on the right-wing cable channel Newsmax, where she was being interviewed by … Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.). It’s an odd industry.

After praising Gaetz effusively (earning a smile in response), Habba insisted that the point of the special counsel investigation into Trump was rooted solely in politics.

“What they wanted was the indictment. What they wanted was the shock factor. They’re going to do it time and time again,” she said. “ … This is a farce, as Eric said.” (I forgot to mention that the guest before her was Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump.) “It is a complete gimmick, and it is election interference. That’s the one thing we haven’t mentioned, which is exactly what it is, frankly.”

This is a fairly typical deployment of the phrase, which we’ll come back to in a second. But then Habba took the idea a bit further.

“They come out with this for a reason,” she said of a news report by the Daily Beast about the federal probe. “And everything is done in specific timing. Headlines are done for election interference. Watch.”

She made a comment suggesting that perhaps she thought the Daily Beast story was not documenting a new development but, instead, intended to somehow distract people from testimony by a former business partner of President Biden’s son — testimony that was canceled.

“Watch, they’ll come after Trump again around the same time so that again they say, look at the shiny ball, guys, don’t look over here, we don’t want you to see it,” she said. “We want to give you another headline.”

To an objective observer, this is patently ridiculous. First of all, there were plenty of stories about the possible testimony at sites besides the Daily Beast — despite the testimony not happening. Second, there was a development worthy of coverage — namely that Trump ally Bernard Kerik was turning over subpoenaed material to investigators, according to Kerik’s attorney, Timothy Parlatore. That is more useful news than deferred testimony.

What Habba is doing is trying to frame all news that is derogatory toward Trump as insincere and motivated. It’s trivial to juxtapose any bad news for Trump with good news for Trump if you look hard enough, so it’s therefore trivial to suggest that the bad news is being reported only to bury the good news. It becomes easier still when your audience is primed to have an expansive definition of what constitutes good news.

Now we come to the broader point: that this is election interference. In the biggest-picture sense, the one in which Trump often deploys the phrase, it’s meant to suggest that the investigations into the former president are an effort to undermine his 2024 candidacy. The left is so scared of Trump (as he’d frame it) and his odds of beating Biden so overwhelming (which they are not) that they resort to criminal indictments and trumped-up criminal charges. This conflates the actions of empaneled grand juries with “the left,” but since Trump and his allies have so successfully recast anyone who does anything against his interests as an enemy, that’s a trivial leap to make.

You can see how this argument works, though. If Trump were actually leading Biden by a wide margin, there’s a logic to it. But he isn’t, and there’s no indication that the most serious charges Trump faces, stemming from the special counsel’s probe, have any partisan motivation at all. Because Trump’s supporters have heard constantly from people like Habba and Gaetz that Trump is innocent of wrongdoing, it is easier for them to assume that the special counsel is up to no good than that, say, Trump illegally retained documents marked as classified at his home in Florida.

In her comments about the Daily Beast, though, we see a ludicrous extension of the idea. By arguing that the Daily Beast headline in this moment is “election interference,” it implies that there is some influence on the election to be had now. Habba isn’t just arguing that the indictment is “interfering” with the election down the road; she’s saying this headline, now, is doing so. And that makes no sense.

Trump has long tried to claim that things that are unflattering to him are devious efforts to make him lose. Polling that showed him trailing Biden in late 2020 was “vote suppression” aimed, through some inexplicable process, at depressing turnout by his voters. That this was supposedly happening in, say, July — way before anyone was voting — was simply ignored.

The same thing applies here, though. How is this Daily Beast story about Kerik interference? What election is it interfering with? The Iowa caucuses don’t start for six months; the 2024 general election is in more than a year. If the Daily Beast were intentionally burying a pro-Trump story for an anti-Trump one, we’re meant to assume that some Daily Beast reader would, right now, decide against supporting the former president’s candidacy.

This argument brings us to the crux of the issue. Trump announced that he was seeking the Republican Party’s 2024 nomination soon after the 2022 midterms specifically so that he could make this argument. America’s unending political campaign seasons can be stretched as long as needed, and Trump needs this one to be already underway. Doing so allows him to frame everything as being downstream from his political ambitions instead of, say, a response to illegal activity.

Habba just took it too far. By claiming that the Daily Beast was election interference, with its coverage of a derivative component of a possible future indictment, she put more weight on the argument than it could bear.

At least in the real world. In the gravity-defying physics of Matt Gaetz and Newsmax, though, her comment simply earned her another smile.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post