Adam Schiff, the House manager leading the impeachment case against President Trump, did an excellent job of presenting a fundamentally flawed and fallacious argument in his opening statement yesterday. Schiff is a former federal prosecutor who was articulate and seemingly factual and well-prepared, albeit a little self-righteous. He quoted extensively from White House documents and the testimony of aides and officials who were concerned about the temporary hold on military aid to Ukraine, which gave his presentation an undeserved aura of credibility.
But Schiff provided absolutely no factual support for the crucial premise on which his entire case depends. Schiff asserted repeatedly, without providing any evidence, that the matters the president asked Ukraine to investigate were “kooky conspiracy theories” that no one could possibly believe. Change that one unsupported premise, and the whole house of cards collapses.
Assume for purposes of argument that the matters that Trump asked Ukraine to investigate were based on reasonable suspicions of misconduct. If so, his actions were all proper and well within his constitutional duty to take care that the laws are properly enforced rather than a “scheme” to “cheat” in the next election, as Schiff repeatedly asserted.
Schiff used a rhetorical trick that sophists, including former federal prosecutors, have known throughout history: provide elaborate factual support for peripheral details and hope that the impression that your argument is factual will carry over to the critical premise, for which you can offer no support whatsoever.
A law firm with which I am affiliated represents the Biden campaign on certain election matters, so I am not allowed to say anything about the Bidens, and I will not do so. But I urge every fair-minded person to read the full transcript of Schiff’s opening statement with an eye for unsupported, conclusory statements that various matters were “conspiracy theories” that had been repeatedly “debunked.”
If you are too busy to do that, or your mind is made up, just do a search for the words “conspiracy theory,” “false,” and “debunked” here. You’ll come up with many examples of totally unsupported assertions by Mr. Schiff. He refers repeatedly to the consensus conclusions of unnamed “experts” that the president lacked a reasonable basis for requesting investigations. Based on that assumption, he jumps to the conclusion that the president’s requests must reflect a “corrupt motive” to “cheat” in the next election, including the following:
Lots of lurid adjectives; no evidence.
Note also how quickly Mr. Schiff shifts from the claim that Ukraine may have interfered in the 2016 election to putting words that Trump never said into the president’s mouth that “therefore” Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election. This is a total non sequitur, as Schiff certainly knows; it is possible that both Ukraine and Russia tried to influence the 2016 election, as others, including Sen. Ted Cruz have pointed out. This is not the first time that Schiff has attributed words to the president that he didn’t say.
As President Reagan famously said, “There you go again.”
The claim that this “narrative” was “propagated by Russia’s intelligence service” is classic guilt by association: if the Russian intelligence service said it, then it must be a “fiction” and can’t possibly be true. Wrong! Sometimes even Russians tell the truth.
I have no idea whether or not there was a reasonable basis for looking into these matters. I do know, however, that the crucial premise on which the Democrats’ impeachment theories depend is that the president had no reasonable basis to request such investigations. Accordingly, the Democrats should have the obligation to prove, not merely assert, their premise. In a court of law, a motion to dismiss would properly be granted if the opening statement did not promise to provide evidence to support a critical premise for the proponents’ legal theory.
To his credit, Schiff openly admitted in his opening statement yesterday that the lynchpin for his case against the president is the dubious legal theory that an otherwise legal action by the president becomes an impeachable offense if done for what his critics see as a “corrupt motive.”
I have argued elsewhere in these pages against this unprecedented legal theory as a basis for impeachment on the grounds that speculation about what it in the president’s mind is too unreliable to form the basis for an impeachment.
A long, well-reasoned letter, released yesterday, from the attorneys general of 21 states makes similar legal arguments. Remarkably, the left-wing media refused to even mention it while parroting Schiff’s speculative theories in detail.
But as impeachment by the House is now a reality and the president is being tried in the court of public opinion, as well as the Senate, I have also suggested that it would be wise for the president and his defenders to show that there was a legitimate basis to investigate. The point for the moment, however, is that Schiff provides absolutely no evidence for his characterization of “conspiracy theories” that have been “debunked” by unnamed “experts.”
One person’s “conspiracy theory” is another person’s perception of reality. It has become fashionable to dismiss narratives with which one disagrees as “conspiracy theories.” This technique permits someone to dismiss disturbing ideas that conflict with one’s own worldview without confronting them on the merits. Throughout human history, some of what were once consider crazy “conspiracy theories” have had a funny way of becoming accepted later as truth. The most famous example is Galileo. He insisted that the earth rotated around the sun when all educated and right-thinking people “knew” that the sun must rotate around the earth because we had been created by God and therefore we had to be the center of the universe. For almost a thousand years, the Catholic Church defined a single version of the truth and punished those who thought otherwise as heretics. That period is called “the dark ages” for a reason.
Of course, that does not mean that all conspiracy theories turn out to be valid. Far from it; there are many examples in human history of conspiracy theories that turned out to be invalid. But dismissing someone else’s ideas as a “conspiracy theory” is argument by epithet, and it is unworthy of any intelligent person, even Adam Schiff. And it certainly should not form the basis for impeachment of a president.
A so-called conspiracy theory is another person’s attempt to “connect the dots” into a meaningful narrative. We are better off if we do not dismiss the views of others out of hand just because we don’t see the world the same way they do. Instead, we should take their ideas seriously and try to refute them on their merits.
Today’s orthodoxy has a funny way of turning into yesterday’s superstition, and vice versa.