27 Apr 2019

Jonathan Freedland: 'The man without shame has tremendous power'

From Saturday Morning, 8:11 am on 27 April 2019

In the wake of the Mueller Report, an "impeachment enquiry" into American president Donald Trump is the wisest course of action, according to political columnist and author Jonathan Freedland.

Jonathan Freedland

Jonathan Freedland Photo: The Guardian

Freedland speaks to Kim Hill about his latest novel To Kill The Truth (written under his pseudonym Sam Bourne), which is set in a United States of America where the president lies shamelessly.

One of Freedland's inspirations for To Kill The Truth was David Rieff's 2016 non-fiction book In Praise of Forgetting – in which Rieff makes the provocative case that abolishing memory might be the most progressive thing we can do collectively.

Although this proposition has big moral problems, Freedland tells Kim Hill he found Rieff's idea dramatic and interesting.

Witnessing British revisionist historian David Irving "discount all the tenets of evidence and truth and fact" in a 2000 court trial also left a huge mark on him.

Irving had sued American writer Deborah Lipstadt for referring to him as a "Holocaust denier" giving the defence that he could not be that because the Holocaust didn't happen, Freedland says.

"I remember one day leaving the courtroom in London and having an interesting sensation of queasy giddiness as if the ground was falling away beneath my feet. I realised it was a physiological reaction to what Irving was doing. He was saying the very ground we stand on – of facts and evidence and proof – is shaky because every historical document you summon, I'll just call it a fake and a forgery. And I thought to myself 'if we lived in that world how would you know anything is true?' It was such a disturbing memory that it stayed with me for years. "

Fast-forward to 2019 and people in power are now brazenly doing just what Irving did, Freedland says, and his queasiness has returned.

As he does with all of the Sam Bourne novels, Freedland began writing To Kill The Truth with a 'what if'.

"What if there was a David Irving in America? What if somebody did what he did in Britain about the Holocaust, but did it in America about their biggest historical wound – and said slavery never happened, it's all a fake. What would be the implications of that? … My mind began whirring with that."

Donald Trump seems not to believe in truth for truth's sake, Freedland says, which sometimes makes him nostalgic for earlier American presidents such as Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

"Even though [Clinton and Nixon] were people who did lie and lie quite often, you could see in their lies that they were tortured by the attempt and contorted themselves in the attempt to stay just on the right side of the line between truth and falsehood."

President Donald Trump waves while boarding Air Force One.

President Donald Trump waves while boarding Air Force One. Photo: AP /Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Bill Clinton's very technical definition of 'sexual relations' was what enabled him to pound his desk in January 1998, declaring that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman" [White House intern Monica Lewinsky]."

"It was important to him – even if it was a technicality – that he could stay just on that side of the line."

Trump walks boldly over the line, Freedland says.

"He doesn't caveat or use sub-clauses … the brazenness and the willingness to be without shame is amazingly powerful because it leaves your opponents [looking] pedantic, while meanwhile he's got a two-word slogan that the crowd are chanting.

"The man without shame has tremendous power because [he doesn't get himself] tied up in knots… and [his] supporters – between a third and half of the country – will nod and believe it.

"You as the truth teller are left trailing in their wake. The truth defender looks very weak and therefore truth itself is weak in the face of someone who has no shame."

Before Donald Trump's presidency, journalists worked on the principle that the way to get to the truth is by balance – an approach which Trump now exploits, Freedland says.

"We had a desire to be fair and we need to replace that now with a desire to be truthful."

In Robert Mueller's investigation into whether Donald Trump had colluded with Russia on the 2016 presidential campaign, Mueller "bent over backwards" to do what was fairest, Freedland says.

He believes two main things prevented Mueller from reporting that Trump had colluded:

He did not find the word 'collusion' in the legal lexicon so instead sought evidence of 'conspiracy' in order to prove 'collusion' – i.e. "proof of a formal agreement between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin".

"What he could have said is 'collusion is not a legal term but it's absolutely clear these two sides colluded'.

"He set the legal bar so high that it could never be met."

Secondly, Mueller adhered to a US Justice Department policy that a sitting president cannot be indicted.

"So Mueller decided if 'I cannot ever indict him, I cannot find evidence of crimes…' It wasn't that he didn't find evidence of felonies, it's rather than in the case of a sitting president he knew that he could never prosecute those crimes."

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2013, file photo, former FBI Director Robert Mueller is seated at FBI Headquarters in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Photo: AP

"He was just being scrupulously fair… and put himself in the hands of people who are scrupulously unfair who proceeded to entirely distort every word Mueller had written.

"He was playing absolutely by the book but he was playing like a sort of kitten in the lion's den … I don't know quite why he was holding back like that."

"Hopeless" is how Freedland describes the political reasoning for any attempt to impeach Donald Trump at this point.

"Even if [the Democrats] do bring impeachment charges successfully … it immediately then kicks over to the Senate where there's a trial. And the only way to get a conviction is 67 of those 100 senators have to vote for conviction and that would then remove him from office. The chances of that are close to zero and therefore Nancy Pelosi and other senators are saying 'this is a mug's game, we don't want to do it'.

US Democratic congresswoman Nancy Pelosi. November 2018

Photo: AFP / Getty Images

"On the other hand, if you know this president attempted to obstruct justice on ten occasions that are laid out in meticulous detail and that he only failed to obstruct justice because his aides disobeyed him and that he's only not been prosecuted because the Special Counsel believed you could not bring charges against a sitting president - if you know all that and do nothing you are forfeiting or ignoring your constitutional duty, which is to impeach a president guilty of abuse of power, high crimes and misdemeanors, but you're also setting a precedent which is 'this kind of behavior is okay'. And that – I don't believe, morally – this Democratic House has the right to do because they will be, in effect, telling a second-term Trump … 'Knock yourself out, you can do what you like because we're never really going to come after you'."

Getting more evidence out via an "impeachment enquiry" could be a workable compromise, Freedland says.

"Begin the investigation, begin the hearings, see where you get… that process could itself change the political calculus."

Jonathan Freedland has written a weekly column for the Guardian since 1997, having previously served as the paper's Washington correspondent. He has won awards for his columns and his previous three novels, The Righteous MenThe Last Testament and The Final Reckoning have all been bestsellers.