Donald Trump sent a 2700-word letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on the eve of the vote on his impeachment. It’s a rambling, shambling mess filled with feints, irrelevant claims, and counterattacks. I’ll get into why it exists, what it’s trying to do, and whether it succeeds in that goal.
I really didn’t want to do this. The glee that I have in eviscerating corporate pusillanimity somehow evaporates when I need to wade through a brimming dumpster of political prose. But my friends and followers, starting with Ike Piggott, have insisted. I live to serve you, so here goes.
The ROAM analysis of Trump’s letter
Any analysis of this chunk of rhetoric reduced to print must start with an examination of who the audience is and what it is trying to do. I have a tool for this: ROAM, which analyzes the readers, objective, desired action, and impression for any document. What’s the ROAM analysis of this letter?
Readers: Republicans in Congress and elsewhere
There’s a reason this letter doesn’t make sense to you. You’re probably not in the target audience.
This letter is not actually intended for Nancy Pelosi, even though it’s written to her. It won’t change her behavior.
It’s not intended for Democrats in Congress. They are evaluating the accusations in the articles of impeachment, the evidence for those accusations, and the political fallout from their votes. As I’ll describe shortly, most of Trump’s letter is irrelevant to that evidence.
Nor is it intended for voters, most of whom won’t read it. (However, it is intended as a provocation for liberals.)
It has two actual audiences. First, it is intended for Republicans in Congress, so they know the Trump position on impeachment in detail. And it is intended for anyone appearing on Fox News or writing in Trump-supporting media, so that they have a detailed idea of the points Trump wants to make.
If you are not in one of these audiences, you may read this letter and find it nutty. But Trump doesn’t care what you think, since it’s not really for you.
Objective: Lay out talking points
The objective is not to convince. Trump knows no one is going to read this and change their mind.
The letter describes what you are supposed to say if you are backing Trump.
Action: Repeat the Trump talking points
What are you supposed to do if you read the letter?
If you are outside the Trump sphere of influence, this letter is supposed to make you angry. You are supposed to ridicule it and thereby spread the word about its existence and content (much as I am doing here). This is by design.
If you are within the Trump sphere of influence, you are supposed to repeat the talking points. And if you are a Republican in the House or the Senate, you are supposed to recognize this letter as a threat about what will happen to you if you vote for impeachment — a blistering attack from Trump, and a backlash from Trump voters.
iMpression: Trump is “strong”
Every communication tells the reader about the person who (ostensibly) wrote it. What does this letter tell the reader about Trump?
If you are a Trump loyalist, this letter tells you that Trump is “strong” — that he fiercely defends his position in the face of dishonest, do-nothing Democrats. That’s what Trump thinks the letter is doing.
However, it makes a far more powerful impression: that Trump is unhinged and unable to make an actual argument, and that his judgment is suspect. You have to ask “who would actually send a letter like this?” If anyone in Congress is actually now considering that question, the letter will backfire. (I don’t know if anyone actually is. Maybe Mitt Romney.)
Some more detailed analysis
Visitors to this space are accustomed to my detailed analyses of pieces of writing. But this is not a normal piece of writing. This is a Trump rally in written form. This is an entire pineapple pizza flung willy-nilly into a food fight. It’s not easy to analyze such a document.
Even so, I will try.
An incoherent structure
First, a structural analysis. How is this document structured? Basically, it looks like this:
- I object to the impeachment.
- The impeachment is a violation of the constitution and the oaths taken by Congress.
- The “Abuse of Power” claim is false.
- Biden was corrupt and Zelensky wasn’t pressured.
- The “Obstruction of Congress” claim is invalid.
- You are partisans.
- I had great accomplishments as president.
- The Mueller investigation found nothing.
- The Zelensky call was perfect.
- You wasted our time and money on these partisan investigations.
- The FBI was corrupt and spied on me.
- I have been denied due process.
- You’ll pay for this.
That’s all over the map, and much of it has little to do with the case for or against impeachment. If there is a case to be made here, this is not how to make it, because it’s very hard to follow. It is confusing. But that may be part of the intent — confusion is part of the desired goal.
As a reader and someone who studies rhetoric, the thing I found most notable about this document is how much of it is irrelevant.
What is relevant? The question of whether Trump abused his power or obstructed a Congressional investigation. Anything else is irrelevant.
First, let’s get this out of the way. Impeachment is not contrary to the Constitution, it’s in the constitution. Congress has the power to impeach the president. Furthermore, impeachment is not about crimes, it is about malfeasance — not fulfilling the duties of the presidency faithfully, and putting one’s self above the state. Regarding due process, the process in the House is similar to an indictment, in which the defendant has little role. The process in the Senate is similar to a trial, in which the defendant can call witnesses and defend himself. So I reject those complaints about due process. Trump will have the ability to defend himself in the Senate.
What else is here? Here’s an incomplete list of irrelevant points:
- “I said to President Zelensky: ‘I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it.’ I said do us a favor, not me, and our country, not a campaign.” If the President requested a favor to benefit his campaign, it doesn’t matter what he said to Zelensky about it. Saying “do us a favor” is still wrong if the favor benefits Trump’s campaign, not the country, regardless of how he worded it.
- “You know full well that Vice President Biden used his office and $1 billion dollars of U.S. aid money to coerce Ukraine into firing the prosecutor who was digging into the company paying his son millions of dollars. . . . Now you are trying to impeach me by falsely accusing me of doing what Joe Biden has admitted he actually did.” What Biden did is irrelevant, he is not the one being impeached. Like Mitt Romney, I’m not buying that with all the corruption in the world, the one bit of it that Trump wanted to investigate just happened to be the one that reveals dirt on a political rival. And “somebody else did it too” is not a counterargument. Biden’s request to fire the prosecutor was in response to a bipartisan policy objective.
- “President Zelensky has repeatedly declared that I did nothing wrong, and that there was No Pressure.” Victims of extortion rarely stand up and report that they were being extorted. With hundreds of millions of dollars of aid dependent on Trump’s next decision, Zelensky is not going to say, “Yeah, he was extorting me.”
- “Everyone, you included, knows what is really happening. Your chosen candidate lost the election in 2016, in an Electoral College landslide (306-227), and you and your party have never recovered from this defeat.” Whether there are partisan motives doesn’t matter. What matters is if Trump did what he is accused of doing.
- “Speaker Pelosi, you admitted just last week at a public forum that your party’s impeachment effort has been going on for ‘two and a half years,’ long before you ever heard about a phone call with Ukraine.” Doesn’t matter. Pelosi’s desire to get rid of Trump is irrelevant; only Trump’s behavior is relevant.
- “A ranting and raving Congresswoman, Rashida Tlaib, declared just hours after she was sworn into office, ‘We’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherf****r.’ Representative Al Green said in May, ‘I’m concerned that if we don’t impeach this president, he will get re-elected.’ ” Doesn’t matter. If a few people in one party wanting to get rid of a president from the other was grounds to invalidate an impeachment, then no impeachment could ever happen. And then any president could do anything they wanted.
- “Congressman Adam Schiff cheated and lied all the way up to the present day, even going so far as to fraudulently make up, out of thin air, my conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine and read this fantasy language to Congress as though it were said by me.” What does this have to do with whether Trump actually pressured Ukraine and withheld funds? Nothing.
- “You and your party are desperate to distract from America’s extraordinary economy, incredible jobs boom, record stock market, soaring confidence, and flourishing citizens. Your party simply cannot compete with our record: 7 million new jobs; the lowest-ever unemployment for African Americans, . . . “ There are 280 words of this stuff about what Trump accomplished. It’s irrelevant. Popular or successful presidents aren’t immune from impeachment — it’s about whether they violated the demands of their office, not what else they accomplished.
- “There is nothing I would rather do than stop referring to your party as the Do-Nothing Democrats. Unfortunately, I don’t know that you will ever give me a chance to do so.” Attacking the Democrats is irrelevant to the question of what Trump did or didn’t do.
- “After three years of unfair and unwarranted investigations, 45 million dollars spent, 18 angry Democrat prosecutors, the entire force of the FBI, headed by leadership now proven to be totally incompetent and corrupt, you have found NOTHING! . . . You do not know, nor do you care, the great damage and hurt you have inflicted upon wonderful and loving members of my family. You conducted a fake investigation upon the democratically elected President of the United States, and you are doing it yet again.” The Mueller investigation was conducted by the Justice Department, not Congress. Even if you believe that the investigation found nothing (which it didn’t), it doesn’t immunize Trump against any other completely separate investigation. (Whining isn’t just irrelevant, it’s pathetic.)
- “And by the way, when I speak to foreign countries, there are many people, with permission, listening to the call on both sides of the conversation.” Why does this matter?
- “Before the Impeachment Hoax, it was the Russian Witch Hunt. Against all evidence, and regardless of the truth, you and your deputies claimed that my campaign colluded with the Russians—a grave, malicious, and slanderous lie, a falsehood like no other.” That investigation doesn’t matter in this impeachment. It’s not a “Get Out of Jail Free” card.
- “If you truly cared about freedom and liberty for our Nation, then you would be devoting your vast investigative resources to exposing the full truth concerning the FBI’s horrifying abuses of power before, during, and after the 2016 election—including the use of spies against my campaign, the submission of false evidence to a FISA court, and the concealment of exculpatory evidence in order to frame the innocent.” Even if this were true, it doesn’t excuse Trump’s behavior.
- “This is nothing more than an illegal, partisan attempted coup that will, based on recent sentiment, badly fail at the voting booth.” Not a defense for wrongdoing.
Why is all this irrelevant material present? Because it tells everyone on Trump’s side what to say. It’s a roadmap for clouding the issue.
Stylistic malpractice and inaccuracy
Really, at this point, who gives a damn, but this letter just does not read like a communication from the chief executive of anything. It reads like a tantrum.
It includes eight exclamation points (“You have cheapened the importance of the very ugly word, impeachment!”, “After three years of unfair and unwarranted investigations, you have found NOTHING!”, “You have developed a full-fledged case of what many in the media call Trump Derangement Syndrome and sadly, you will never get over it! “, “You view democracy as your enemy!”) The correct number of exclamation points in such a communication is zero.
It casts aspersions in the passive voice (“I then had a second conversation that has been misquoted, mischaracterized, and fraudulently misrepresented.”, “Never once did Ukraine complain about pressure being applied . . . “, “Yet, when the monstrous lie was debunked and this Democrat conspiracy dissolved into dust, you did not apologize.”)
It is rife with weasel words (“strongest and most powerful protest”, “unfettered contempt for America”, “egregious conduct”, “America’s extraordinary economy, incredible jobs boom”, “strong protection of the Second Amendment”, “a colossal reduction in illegal border crossings”, and so on).
And, of course, it is filled with factual errors. Here’s a good review of those. To mention just the clearest and most obvious, the electoral college count was 306-232, not 306-227. If you subtract the faithless electors who didn’t vote for who they were bound to, it was 304-227. But 306-227 is a made up number.
In terms of factual and substantive contribution to the debate, this letter is a nullity.
In terms of representing the mental state and competence of the current occupant of the Oval Office, it is extremely revealing.
It may well contribute to Trump’s goal of reminding Republicans in Congress to stay in line. It may help summarize talking points for talking heads on Fox.
It’s unlikely to affect the results of the impeachment in the House, or the trial in the Senate.
But it is certainly going to be effective in riling up dissent and raising a fog of confusion over the whole proceeding. If that makes you a little nauseated, I know exactly how you feel.