Sunday, December 4

Analysis | There’s always demand for a Trump smoking gun. So there’s always supply.


The revelation was offered with seemingly practiced casualness. Speaking to “60 Minutes” as he promoted a new book, former Virginia congressman Denver Riggleman (R), whose post-Congress work included analysis for the House select committee investigating the Capitol riot, claimed that there was some communication between the White House and a rioter on Jan. 6, 2021.

“You get a real ‘a-ha’ moment when you see that the White House switchboard had connected to a rioter’s phone while it’s happening,” Riggleman told CBS’s Bill Whitaker. “That’s a big, pretty big ‘a-ha’ moment.”

Riggleman kept going, but Whitaker interjected to the effect of: I’m sorry, what?

He’d heard right, Riggleman assured the reporter. And while he didn’t know where the call originated within the White House, he knew where it went.

“The thing is,” he said, “the American people need to know that there are link connections that need to be explored more.” And, as it turns out, he has a book coming out that can draw some of those connections!

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The full segment aired Sunday night. Even before it did, though, the embers had been dampened somewhat. On CNN’s “State of the Union,” host Jake Tapper asked Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) about the snippet that CBS had been teasing.

“I can say that each of the issues that Mr. Riggleman raised during the period he was with committee, which ended quite some time ago, we looked into,” Schiff said. “And one of the things I think that has given our committee credibility is, we have been very careful about what we say, not to overstate matters, not to understate matters.”

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He added that “without the advantage of the additional information we have gathered since he left the committee, it, I think, poses real risks to be suggesting things.”

On Monday morning, CNN had more details: The call lasted nine seconds and was placed to a rioter named Anton Lunyk. At the time of the call, which was placed at 4:34 p.m., Lunyk was probably no longer in the building. On April 21, Lunyk signed a plea agreement with the government that included future cooperation on the government’s probe. Less than a week later, Riggleman resigned from his position aiding the House committee.

It’s obviously important to know who placed the call from the White House and why. The calls coming into and made from the White House on that day have been a repeated focus of attention since the riot unfolded, thanks in part to the unusual gap in phone calls made by Donald Trump himself. It’s also because there are a variety of known links between Trump’s allies and those involved in the riot, from rhetorical ones to organizational ones. Trump’s culpability for the day is clear — weeks of dishonest rhetoric and a call to show up in Washington — but there’s no smoking gun in which Trump himself explicitly demanded that people break into the Capitol or in which he is known to have explicitly encouraged the violence to continue.

To Schiff’s point, that’s not even the case that the House committee is aiming toward. Their focus from the outset has been to show how Trump tried to retain power, including by setting the stage for the riot. But there’s still a hunger on the left for something more, something that draws Trump closer to the unquestionably abhorrent violence.

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There’s long been just such a hunger. Just as Trump’s false claims about the election created a demand for alleged proof (see: “2000 Mules”) or a campaign to derail President Biden’s inauguration (see: Trump’s post-2020 fundraising), there’s been demand since even before Nov. 8, 2016, for something that proves Trump’s criminality, illegitimacy or both.

The investigation into Russian interference in that election, for example, soon became subsumed by the salacious allegations included in the dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. That the dossier was tangential to the allegations and that analyses from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and a bipartisan Senate committee bolstered mainstream reporting were details lost as both left and right focused on proving or rejecting the most extreme possibilities of Trump-Russia engagement. Trump managed to wave the whole thing away in part because of how some of his critics exaggerated expectations. But many of those critics earned big paychecks and boundless attention through that exaggeration. There was demand; they were the supply.

The demand persists. In part, that’s because Trump is still obviously a force in American politics and still potentially on track to return to the White House. In part, it’s because there are still questions about his actions both in office and before. In part, though, it’s simply because there have been so many occasions on which Trump has been linked to dubious behavior or decision-making but skated. There’s a sense among many on the left that Trump’s simply tempted fate so many times that what he’s constructed is bound to collapse on his head — and they want front-row seats. It’s a Hollywood-bad-guy iteration of expectation-setting.

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There is little demand for cautious consideration of what’s known and what isn’t. Just as fervent Trump supporters don’t want to believe that Trump did lose, largely because so many voters disliked him, those who dislike Trump don’t want to believe that there isn’t some discoverable string tying Trump to obvious illegality — despite how often such strings have been announced and then shown to be frayed.

So there’s a market for those strings. For cryptic announcements that the string was discovered and will be detailed in a forthcoming book. And when it becomes clear that the string was oversold, the response is often not to be newly skeptical of allegations. Instead, it is to look for some other, stronger string that must be out there someplace.

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