Impeachment becomes psychological case study

The Chinese Whisper Game, which also goes by various other names, such as “Telephone,” goes like this: One person whispers some information to another. The hearer then whispers the information to a third person, the third to a fourth, and so on through an entire line of participants. At the end of the line, the final hearer announces the information, and everyone laughs at the (expected) dissimilarity between this final person’s statement and the initial idea expressed by the first whisperer. The purpose of the game, of course, is to show what happens to language and meaning as it is relayed through a chain of interpreters, no matter how sincere their intentions.

One further implied meaning of the game’s typical outcome, however, is that it is important not to put too much stock in “certainties” conveyed to you through the grapevine. And that would obviously include not taking extreme or unusual action in accordance with such attenuated “certainties.”

Today, one of the Democrats’ star witnesses in their impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump’s alleged quid pro quo concerning U.S. military aid to Ukraine, Gordon Sondland, may have given the world a real life example of the Chinese Whisper Game. I don’t watch bad TV melodramas, but from what I have read, Sondland claimed, in what is apparently a shift from his original closed-door testimony, that “everyone was in the loop” about Trump’s clear position on this quid pro quo; and he was, furthermore, emphatic in mentioning certain prominent individuals, particularly Rick Perry, Kurt Volker, and Mike Pence, as being among those “in the loop,” and as having shared his own supposed concerns about Trump’s position.

The problem, however — one carefully downplayed by the mainstream media — is that Sondland cannot say from whom he got this information about Trump’s quid pro quo. In fact, under questioning by Republican representative Mike Turner, Sondland acknowledged that no one had ever directly informed him of this quid pro quo.

Join me in a little what-if-ism, if you will: What if Sondland is pressing this latest line of “everyone knew” and “we were all in the loop” because at the time when all these events were developing, with himself right in the center of them, he honestly believed he was representing Trump in pressuring Ukraine for an investigation, as a condition for military aid (the infamous quid pro quo), but has since come to realize, partly through the process of re-examination set in motion by his own initial claims, that he doesn’t actually know for a fact whether anyone in the administration was operating on this premise at all?

Consider again that he was forced to admit under questioning that not one single person “on this planet,” as Rep. Turner phrased it, ever told him that Trump had tied Ukrainian aid to any investigation of anything. In fact, he went further, admitting that this connection was just a guess on his part.

Here is the key portion of Sondland’s testimony, as quoted in a Los Angeles Times article:

“President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the meetings,” Sondland said. “The only thing we got directly from Guiliani [sic] was that the Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting. The aid was my own personal, you know, guess.”

“Two plus two equals four,” he added.

On the basis of his own internal arithmetic, in other words, he went ahead and talked to the Ukrainian government as though such a quid pro quo were coming directly from Donald Trump, although as far as he knew personally, this was not the case, and the idea was purely his own personal guess from what he had heard. And although he enjoys using the impeachment inquiry’s current catchphrase “quid pro quo,” the quid pro quo he is alleging to know about here is not even the one under investigation, namely that concerning military aid, but rather an irrelevant claim that Ukraine’s president would not get a White House meeting with Trump without announcing an investigation into the company connected with Joe Biden’s son. A White House photo opportunity and military aid are two very different subjects, and it seems to me that one could hardly impeach a president because he set conditions for agreeing to a meaningless official lunch with a foreign leader. Such events are mere optics for both sides, exactly the kind of thing a reality television shill like Trump would care about, but nothing of any real significance.

Further, notice that Sondland cannot even say clearly that he himself got the information that he claims he got from Giuliani, from which he personally inferred this quid pro quo idea. He says, “The only thing we got directly from Giuliani….” Why “we”? Why not “I”? Again, he seems very desperate to paint a picture of the quid pro quo as general knowledge, presumably as a means of squirming out of his own personal responsibility for having pursued specific actions on the basis of an alleged demand of Trump’s that Sondland does not know came from Trump — assuming that it came from anyone, which is also very much in doubt, given Sondland’s admission that he merely guessed it based on something “we” got from Giuliani. The Chinese Whisper Game.

Thus, perhaps that direct connection to Trump was merely his own understanding, his sense of the situation. Or perhaps things were discussed that he personally interpreted as implying such a quid pro quo, and then he, perhaps out of overzealousness or the sheer childish headiness of feeling important, went to town with that “sense of things,” and is now reckoning with having huffed and puffed himself into serious culpability.

To escape from his own poor judgment and eagerness to feel powerful, he is now desperately dropping names (Perry, Pence, Pompeo, you name it) trying to provide cover for his own irresponsibility by vaguely claiming “everyone knew” Trump was directing this policy — even though he can’t name a single individual who ever actually passed this supposed universal knowledge to him.

My sense, which I acknowledge is just “my own personal, you know, guess,” is that Sondland, who seems to have bought his way into a fancy Trump ambassadorship with a million dollar donation, is now saying whatever he thinks he can get away with to save his own backside, because he realizes that the only person in this situation who has, so far, been proven to have acted recklessly and possibly illegally with regard to Ukraine, is he.

I don’t know any of this for a fact, of course, and I am the very last person on the planet inclined to casually defend Donald Trump against any criticisms or allegations whatsoever. Furthermore, I wish he could be impeached, as he is a wrecking ball swinging randomly at the ruins of a great civilization. But as they say, “Two plus two equals four.”

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