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Trump impeachment inquiry sparks war of spin, disinformation online

As the first public hearings in the Trump impeachment inquiry began, watchers online launched influence and misinformation efforts across the internet.

Amb. William Taylor And Deputy Assistant Secretary Of State George Kent Testify At Impeachment Hearing
 House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Devin Nunes (R-CA) listen to testimony during the first public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the first public impeachment hearings in more than two decades, witnesses William B. Taylor Jr., top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and George P. Kent, Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, testified as House Democrats are trying to build a case that President Donald Trump committed extortion, bribery or coercion by trying to enlist Ukraine to investigate his political rival in exchange for military aide and a White House meeting that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky sought with Trump.
Photo by Saul Loeb - Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The online spin and dissembling began even before Wednesday’s impeachment hearing got underway.

Moments before House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff could welcome witnesses to the first public hearing of the impeachment inquiry, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to dismiss the “New Hoax. Same Swamp.”

Former Obama administration aides-turned-podcasters dissected the hearings in real time. They broadcast their running conversation on Slack, an instant messaging platform popular in workplaces, over YouTube to thousands of left-leaning followers.

And partisans on both sides of the aisle used Twitter to debate the significance of a revelation by William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, that one of his staff members overheard a telephone conversation in which Trump discussed “the investigations.”

So went the national conversation surrounding the first presidential impeachment hearings of the hyperpartisan, social media era.

It is a moment when influence and misinformation efforts move at lightning speed and with a sophistication that would have been unimaginable when the nation last went through a presidential impeachment more than 20 years ago, an era when dialup modems and AOL message boards powered the digital town square.

Even before the Democratic House investigators’ counsel Daniel Goldman could end his first round of questioning, Trump backers labeled the hearing an inconsequential #Snoozefest.

“For as much time as the Democrats have spent trying to orchestrate “political theater” they have done a terrible job,” presidential son Eric Trump declared on Twitter. “This clown show is horribly boring. There is not a single person outside the beltway who is engaged in this nonsense. Can’t wait to win again in 2020! #DCSucks.”

Tommy Vietor, a former Obama White House spokesman and co-host of Pod Save America, applauded Schiff for keeping early questioning focused on Taylor’s revelation that a staff member overheard a telephone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, an ambassador to the European Union, that he found concerning.

Taylor said the staffer asked Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Sondland responded that Trump cared more about investigating Biden.

“Really smart of Schiff to start with the new revelations, get Taylor to repeat it,” Vietor wrote in a real-time Slack commentary posted on YouTube. “Create more snippets to share.”

Some on the left pushed #TrumpBribery, a hashtag used nearly 50,000 times before the hearings even kicked off. Democrats, who have at times struggled to craft an easily explained narrative around Trump’s conduct with Ukraine, celebrated its success.

“BOOM: #TrumpBribery is trending nationally and has already been tweeted over 10,000 times. Let’s keep it going!” Scott Dworkin, co-founder of the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, cheered on Twitter.

Before the day’s witnesses could deliver their opening statements, Republicans questioned Schiff’s fairness and created a moment that supporters could share on social media at the top of the hearing.

Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, pointedly asked Schiff when he would allow members of the intelligence committee to question the whistleblower whose complaint spurred the impeachment inquiry. The whistleblower had raised concerns that Trump inappropriately pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings in the Ukraine.

“Of the 435 members of Congress, you are the only member who knows who that individual is,” Jordan told Schiff. “And your staff is the only staff of any member of Congress that has had a chance to talk to that individual. We would like that opportunity. When might that happen in this proceeding today?”

The whistleblower contacted Schiff’s staff before filing the complaint with the inspector general’s office. But attorneys for the whistleblower said their client never met with Schiff.

“First, as the gentleman knows, that’s a false statement,” said Schiff, whose response was met with laughter by some in the Capitol Hill hearing room. “I do not know the identity of the whistleblower, and I’m determined to make sure that the identity is protected.”

The Republican National Committee posted video on Twitter of Jordan pressing Schiff but did not include the California lawmaker’s response. The clip was shared from the RNC account more than 1,300 times.

Even the sartorial choices of witness George Kent, a deputy secretary of state who wore a patterned green bow tie and matching pocket square, spurred partisan debate on Twitter.

“Imagine being George Kent and deciding to wear a bow tie to go up against Donald Trump,” tweeted One America News Network host Jack Posobiec, a self-described nationalist-conservative.

The liberal commentator John Nichols was more appreciative of Kent’s neckwear.

“Well, yes, it’s obvious by now that George Kent’s superpowers are associated with the bow tie,” Nichols wrote.

Seitz reported from Chicago.