WASHINGTON — What do former president Donald Trump’s impeachment defense strategy and the Pizzagate conspiracy theory have in common?
Pizzagate was the baseless and vile conspiracy theory formed in 2016 that eventually led to QAnon, an even more deranged fiction that posits without an ounce of evidence that a cabal of Satanist cannibals and pedophiles is hiding in plain sight as Democrats, “deep state” officials, Hollywood luminaries, and other powerful liberals. In the QAnon mythology, Trump is the hero who would arrest, indict, imprison, and even execute the treasonous among us. The final days of Trump’s presidency witnessed a convergence of the MAGA masses and the QAnon crowd, with both groups spreading the conspiracy theory of a stolen election and predicting a miraculous turn of events that would see Trump given four more years in office.
Now, as Trump prepares for his second impeachment trial, he’s taking a cue from the most diehard believers in delusional theories like Pizzagate and QAnon. To defend himself, the former president is mounting a defense that pulls straight from the conspiracy theorist’s playbook and makes a mockery of the very idea of fact and truth.
With his second impeachment trial set to begin next week, Trump’s hastily assembled legal team responded in writing this week to the article of impeachment filed against him for “willfully inciting violence against the Government of the United States.” The 14-page rebuttal by Trump’s lawyers hinges mostly on two arguments: That it’s unconstitutional to try a former president for impeachment, and that Trump’s lies about the election result, efforts to pressure state officials to change that result, and incendiary rhetoric on January 6th were government-protected speech. “Like all Americans, the 45th president is protected by the First Amendment,” lawyers Bruce Castor and David Schoen write in their response.
But buried in that rebuttal is still another line of defense, one the victims of viral conspiracy theories will recognize. In defense of Trump’s repeated and outlandish lies about the 2020 election result, the former president’s lawyers write:
“It is admitted that after the November election, the 45th President exercised his First Amendment right under the Constitution to express his belief that the election results were suspect, since with very few exceptions, under the convenient guise of Covid-19 pandemic “safeguards” states election laws and procedures were changed by local politicians or judges without the necessary approvals from state legislatures. Insufficient evidence exists upon which a reasonable jurist could conclude that the 45th President’s statements were accurate or not, and he therefore denies they were false.”
Focus on that last line: “Insufficient evidence exists upon which a reasonable jurist could conclude that the 45th President’s statements were accurate or not, and he therefore denies they were false.” In other words, there isn’t enough evidence to disprove the president’s wild and unsupported claims about the election being stolen, so therefore they’re true.
To be clear, there is ample evidence to back up the claim that 2020 was one of the most safe and secure elections in American history. More than 60 lawsuits were filed in state and federal court in the wake of the election by Trump’s campaign, his political allies, and the Republican Party, and Team Trump lost all but one of those cases. Judges nominated by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, including Trump himself, have roundly dismissed the allegations of fraud or corruption across the country for lack of standing and lack of evidence. As Judge Stephanos Bibas, who was appointed by Trump to a federal appeals court, wrote in a decision denying an appeal brought by Trump’s campaign: “Free, fair elections are the lifeblood of our democracy. Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
Trump’s lawyers elide this body of evidence in their impeachment trial response. Instead, they employ the same tactic as the promoters of viral conspiracy theories do — arguing, in essence, that if you can’t fully disprove the president’s repeated claims about corrupt voting-machine companies, stolen votes, and corrupt public officials, then you can’t say they’re false.
Joe Uscinski, a University of Miami associate professor and expert on conspiracy theories, describes this as the classic defense of the conspiracy theorist. “This goes to the very heart of conspiracy theory epistemology,” Uscinski tells Rolling Stone.
Uscinski cites as an example the “birther” conspiracy theory about whether former president Barack Obama was born in the United States — a theory that Donald Trump championed for years on his way to winning the presidency. “People claimed Obama didn’t have an American birth certificate,” Uscinski says. “When he brought it out, they said it’s not the long-form birth certificate. When he brought that out, people said it’s a fake.” With powerful conspiracy theories, Uscinski stresses, “Unfalsifiability is baked into the theory.”
Or take the perspective of James Alefantis, the owner of Comet Ping Pong, the pizzeria targeted by the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. If you’re Alefantis, as one of his lawyers once explained, how do you defend yourself against untrue, vile, and absurd claims like Comet’s basement was the hub of a child-trafficking ring or served human parts in its pizza? “What is it that you’re supposed to do to stop this metastasizing conspiracy theory that says you’re engaged in this kind of activity, and every time you deny it, those denials are cited as evidence of a cover-up?” the lawyer asked. “How do you disprove an absolutely absurd conspiracy theory?” Do you write an op-ed saying, no, in fact the sign for your restaurant does not include hidden Satanist symbols? Give an interview in which you stress that you’re not part of an evil cabal run by the Clinton family? That’s the maddening thing about deranged conspiracy theories: How do you defend yourself against something so extreme and unhinged?
At its core, Trump’s legal argument about the veracity of his stolen-election theories is not so different from the thinking of the Pizzagate and QAnon crowd. If you can’t disprove a statement like Trump’s “we won this election, and we won it by a landslide” or “Trump will expose the deep state and the political establishment as a Satanist cabal,” well, then, there must be some truth to it. Such is the power of a conspiracy theory. The more outlandish, the better.