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Shawn Vestal: Maybe Risch should have slept through this hearing too

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is shown here in a 2020 photo, when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   (Associated Press)

Jim Risch, if you recall, fell asleep for about 15 minutes during the first impeachment trial of the last president.

It’s hard to imagine more of a doddering-grandpa move than the one presented in January 2020 by the 78-year-old Idaho senator, as captured by the Washington Post’s sketch artist: slumped in his chair, head in his hand, while the senators on either side of him, Idaho’s Mike Crapo and Missouri’s Roy Blunt, appeared to be actually listening.

Afterward, Risch’s staff denied the slumber – saying he’d just been resting his eyes! – before he jovially admitted it, while spicing up this admission with a lie about all the other supposedly sleeping senators.

“The media is keeping a list of those they believe dozed off and I think that list is up to about 20 Republicans and Democrats,” he said in an interview with Boise’s KTVB. “Look, you can’t deny that, you sit there for 11 hours on something like that. Do you slip off? Maybe. It is what it is, we are human beings.”

That was actually a list of one, but who’s counting?

All in all, Risch’s Rip Van Winkle act was the perfect two-fer for our post-truth age: Ignore the facts, then make up the “facts.”

All of which would make Risch, in a world that made any sense, a bizarre candidate to take up the attack on President Joe Biden as a doddering old fool controlled by a White House puppet master.

Still, there Risch was last week, at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee intended to probe the withdrawal from Afghanistan, engaging in a tussle with Secretary of State Antony Blinken over a ludicrous, conspiratorial bit of nonsense.

“We know for a fact the president of the United States is somewhat disadvantaged here in that someone is calling the shots,” Risch said. “He can’t even speak without someone in the White House censoring it or signing off on it. As recently as yesterday, in mid-sentence, he was cut off by someone in the White House who makes the decision that the president of the United States is not speaking correctly. … This is a puppeteer act.”

What Risch knows for a fact is the opposite of a fact.

This is Alex Jones territory but, as we all know, the fringe is now the middle on the right. Believing in the lie of a stolen election is an article of faith in those quarters, and so the notion that some malign puppeteer is pulling the senile Biden’s strings – George Soros? The Red Chinese? – is now just the kind of thing the ranking GOP senator on an important committee does at a hearing about real-world problems.

Risch pursued this puppet-master line of questioning relentlessly, like he thought he was Perry Mason catching out the true killer through his own testimony: “It’s been widely reported that somebody has the ability to push the button and cut off his sound and stop him from speaking. Who is that person?”

For one thing, it hasn’t been widely reported at all. It was narrowly reported, in a New York Post column based on an unfounded Republican National Committee tweet, and echoed in the alternative-universe where Biden’s supposed senility lives side-by-side with COVID denialism.

In the real media – the accountable, factual media – Risch’s performance was debunked without qualification.

Risch’s line of questioning was prompted by an incident during Biden’s visit to Boise to discuss wildfires and climate change with fire officials this week, when video from the White House media pool ended while the president was asking a question of one of the participants.

As numerous fact-checkers and journalists familiar with pool operations of presidential appearances have noted, this was the routine way a “pool spray” works. The pool spray is a period at the start of presidential appearances where reporters and photographers are allowed into an event for a few minutes at the start, and then escorted out by the media handlers, while the president remains to engage with whomever he’s there to see.

The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler – a two-time Pulitzer winner who has covered past White Houses himself – gave Risch’s claim, and all the hot, dumb speculation upon which is it based, a full four Pinocchios, adding: “It’s especially dismaying that a senior senator like Risch would fall prey to such nonsense and waste valuable time on it during an important national security hearing.”

As true as that is, it sounds naïve to say such a thing anymore. In his toadying and slumbering for Trump, Risch distinguished himself as a new version of the American congressional conservative. Wasting time on nonsense is the whole brand.

The 78-year-old Biden definitely shows his age, as does the 78-year-old Risch on occasion. They’re only human, after all. But that’s no excuse for Risch, in his waking moments, to waste the Senate’s time on clear, obvious, dishonest nonsense.

It was just another embarrassment of Risch’s.

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