As Republicans begin trotting out deflections and distractions in response to Tuesday’s announcement of an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, it falls on the media to fight back and keep conversations with Trump supporters focused on the facts. Such was the mission facing Chuck Todd shortly after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced the inquiry, when Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy pulled out every devious bit of distracting nonsense he could find in the pockets of his ill-fitting suit.
With his signature buttery Southern drawl dripping nonsense all over Capitol Hill, Sen. Kennedy, 67, refused to concede a single point of fact to Todd, instead relying on the time-tested GOP methods of gaslighting and whataboutism.
What’s exciting is that the Republican got called out, in no uncertain terms—and, notably, with accurate terms—for his shady behavior.
Before we roll the tape, here’s a reminder of what these terms mean.
Gaslighting is a term often used by mental health professionals (I am not one) to describe manipulative behavior used to confuse people into thinking their reactions are so far off base that they’re crazy.
The term comes from the 1944 MGM film, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman. Bergman’s husband in the film, played by Charles Boyer, wants to get his hands on her jewelry. He realizes he can accomplish this by having her certified as insane and hauled off to a mental institution. To pull of this task, he intentionally sets the gaslights in their home to flicker off and on, and every time Bergman’s character reacts to it, he tells her she’s just seeing things. In this setting, a gaslighter is someone who presents false information to alter the victim’s perception of him or herself.
Whataboutism gives a clue to its meaning in its name. It is not merely the changing of a subject (“What about the economy?”) to deflect away from an earlier subject as a political strategy; it’s essentially a reversal of accusation, arguing that an opponent is guilty of an offense just as egregious or worse than what the original party was accused of doing, however unconnected the offenses may be.
The tactic behind whataboutism has been around for a long time. Rhetoricians generally consider it to be a form of tu quoque, which means “you too” in Latin and involves charging your accuser with whatever it is you’ve just been accused of rather than refuting the truth of the accusation made against you. Tu quoque is considered to be a logical fallacy, because whether or not the original accuser is likewise guilty of an offense has no bearing on the truth value of the original accusation.
Whataboutism adds a twist to tu quoque by directing its energies into establishing an equivalence between two or more disparate actions, thereby defaming the accuser with the insinuation that their priorities are backwards.
The junior Senator from the Bayou State admittedly did a fair job of pulling Todd into a circular conversation for about five minutes, wherein he challenged the newsworthiness of Pelosi’s announcement, noting that House Judiciary Cmte. Chairman Jerry “Nadler hasn’t been playing Candy Crush for the last year, he’s been conducting an investigation,” and wouldn’t have done so without Pelosi’s express permission.
Sen. Kennedy, a member of the Appropriations Cmte., then “slippery sloped” about his hopes that Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky was comfortable with the release of the MEMCON “transcript” of the call. Next, Kennedy attempted to steamroll on with an analogy he himself admitted was strange. Namely, he compared the whistleblower complaint to bank robbers beaten by police while in custody—namely that both the police beating and the bank robbery must be investigated.
It was unclear whether Trump is the bank robber or the abusive cop in this analogy, because Todd finally cut him off and got some digs in, pointing out his skepticism that the Hunter Biden story was actually something Trump and friends actually really cared about.
CHUCK TODD: It’s hard to believe the concern about Hunter Biden by some of these folks that are making this case.
I don’t understand why Rudy Giuliani thinks it’s better to investigate an American, and outsource it … to a country that apparently they also didn’t trust. Do you see why I’m skeptical that the Hunter Biden stuff is really that serious? If they were serious about it, you go to the FBI—you don’t go to an oligarch in Ukraine.
Kennedy insisted that there have been no investigations into the allegations against Hunter Biden, then feigned slack-jawed shock when Todd listed multiple agencies and media outlets have looked into the allegations against the Biden the younger. Kennedy shook these facts off and insisted again that there have been no investigations, and managed to circle back to his horrible cops-and-robbers analogy and told Todd, flat out, that he was wrong, and the allegations against Hunter Biden had not been investigated. It was weird, and the panelists surrounding Todd off-camera can be heard cackling throughout the segment.
Finally, Todd found his sea legs, after Kennedy seemed a bit confused about what the allegations in question actually were, as he focused on how Hunter Biden got his job. That’s when Todd took out his figurative earrings and called Kennedy’s bad faith ramblings for what they were: Gaslighting and whataboutism.
CHUCK TODD: No. The allegation is this: That somehow the vice president was acting on his own behalf, not on the behalf of essentially the entire western world, in calling for a corrupt investigator to get fired. The allegation is that somehow he was doing it at the behest of his son. There is no evidence that anything like that exists; it’s an allegation that you’re simply making—it’s sort of the old LBJ, “we have no idea if it’s true, but make them deny it.” That’s not how politics is supposed to work. I understand in Louisiana and Texas it can work that way sometimes. but we were trying to create a fair rule of law here standpoint.SEN. JOHN KENNEDY: I agree, Chuck, and if you were right, I would agree with you. If you were right, I would agree with you. But you’re wrong, this hasn’t been investigated. Just because you think that the—I’m not alleging the Vice President did anything wrong. But I’m just telling you the American people are looking at this and going—TODD: Okay … whataboutism … and how does that have anything to do with the president of the United States going to another world leader and saying, “open an investigation up on my chief political rival?”KENNEDY: Because it has to do with Ukrainian corruption which is what all of this is about.TODD: (chuckling) The Ukrainian corruption, it depends on what you view as corruption. What one side is corrupt. I am trying to be fair here, but you can’t gaslight us, sir. Don’t gaslight us.KENNEDY: I’m not gaslighting you. I’m telling you the facts. Do you deny those facts, do you think they got Hunter Biden’s name off ZipRecruiter? I don’t. I don’t think the American people do. I’m not alleging impropriety. I’m saying we need to look into it.TODD: The president of the United States is the one who violated the Constitution, perhaps, not Hunter Biden. We don’t know if Hunter Biden even—KENNEDY: “Perhaps” is the operative term, because you don’t know and I don’t know because we haven’t seen the transcript, Chuck.
There was a slight deviation where Kennedy admitted that his adult son is still completely dependent upon his parents, but fear not, the Senator got right back to pretending Hunter Biden has never been investigated. When Todd pushed back, Kennedy got mean.
KENNEDY: Chuck, you’re a fair guy. If you’re going to be fair here, you’re going to have to investigate everybody. The president, and the former vice president.
TODD: It’s been done.
KENNEDY: No, it hasn’t, Chuck.
TODD: We’re going to have to leave it. I’m not going to sit here and defend Hunter Biden and defend lobbying and defend any of that stuff.
KENNEDY: Maybe he should hire you, you’re doing a good job.
TODD: No, I’m not here to allow a false equivalency to take over. That’s the problem with our politics.
The back-and-forth continued a little longer, with Kennedy feigning confusion again, before Todd ended the interview. He actually took a second to himself before tossing to Mike Memoli.
Unlike the White House, Kennedy managed not to blink, but this was never as much about Kennedy’s bad acts, rather than the importance of the media to recognize this Trumpian manipulation, call it by its name, and push back—HARD.
You can suffer through the entire 11-minute clip here, courtesy of MSNBC.