Obstructed View

Obstructed View

Here’s the lede, which I’m going to say again and again as long as this shitshow continues:

None of this would be happening if millions of Americans were not totally thrilled about the idea of a right wing autocrat.

So this week let us examine that headsnapping fact through the prism of just one aspect of the Ukrainegate scandal: the Trump administration’s brazen obstruction of the investigation, something with which those aforementioned millions are just fine.

OBSTRUCT THIS

Yesterday the legal counsels for the House Intelligence Committee—Daniel Goldman for the Democratic majority and Stephen Castor for the Republican minority— delivered statements to the House Judiciary Committee ahead of a vote to move forward with articles of impeachment, which are likely to be presented today. In one sense the lawyers’ appearance was just more kabuki theater, as their respective statements represented diametrically opposed, mirror image visions of Ukrainegate in the never-ending Rorschach test that American life has become.

But as I have often said, two people arguing about the shape of the planet are not both necessarily correct, no matter how loudly the flat earth faction shouts.

Goldman succinctly laid out a case that only the most deluded Trump disciple, or cynical right wing partisan, could plausibly deny. Castor’s statement, by contrast, was a laughable display of dishonesty, obfuscation, and misdirection hinging on the idea that Donald Trump is a valiant and altruistic anti-corruption crusader whose actions in this matter are driven only by his deep, deep desire to clean up the dirty domestic politics of the country of Ukraine. If you’re onboard with that, email me at info@thekingsnecktie.com, because I have a bridge just down the street at the end of Cadman Plaza that I’ll let you have cheap.

But we need not spend one syllable here on the underlying high crimes regarding Ukraine; they have been well-detailed elsewhere, including in these pages. Let us instead confine ourselves purely to the White House’s obstruction of efforts to investigate those offenses, which is to say, the coverup.

I say “coverup,” but that term implies a secret effort to hide the facts. The Trump administration is openly blocking investigators’ access to the facts, which is less like a coverup than flatout contempt for the rule of law.

As every rational observer has already stated, if the White House had exculpatory evidence, they would have rushed it into the public eye. It would be blaring 24/7 from Donald’s Twitter feed, and on Hannity and Judge Jeannie and Ingraham every night, and from the lips of every Trump supporter (should they be able to pry them loose from Donald’s ass).

But they don’t have any such evidence. Very much the contrary.

Therefore, Team Trump has instead done precisely the opposite. It has stonewalled, ordering every conceivable arm of the federal government not to cooperate with proper Congressional oversight. As the report of the House Intelligence Committee put it, “(Trump) has ordered federal agencies and officials to disregard all voluntary requests for documents and defy all duly authorized subpoenas for records. He also directed all federal officials in the Executive Branch not to testify—even when compelled.”

Most egregious (and telling) of all, the White House has instructed the most important, high-ranking witnesses like Mulvaney, Bolton, and Pompeo—the people who have the information that would be most valuable to Congress—not to appear, even when legally ordered to do so. (NB: Trump has issued these “orders” even when the individual in question, like Bolton, or Don McGahn, is no longer a federal employee and under no obligation to obey. So these punks are complicit in the refusal, much as they want to pretend their blood-covered hands are tied.)

Trump of course, has said he would “love” for these individuals to testify, which is damn near a guarantee that the White House will never let them do so. The reason, as both Occam’s razor and common sense tell us, is that if they were to tell the truth under penalty of perjury (not necessarily a certainty), what they have to say would likely be a knife in the heart of Trump’s claim of innocence.

Then again, why not let them testify? No matter what they have to say—and remember, Mulvaney has already said on live TV that hell yes, Trump ordered the Code Red, and “we do this stuff all the time”—the Republican Party will just deny that it amounts to a hill of beans. Nothing to see here folks, move along.

GOD SAVE THE KING

This obstruction of justice is arguably worse even than the abuse of power that Trump is obstructing investigation of. (And that abuse—stealing taxpayer dollars to bribe a foreign leader to interfere in our elections—was pretty goddam bad.)

Even Richard Nixon, the previous titleholder when it comes to contempt for Congress and the rule of law, at least acknowledged the authority of the Constitution he was subverting. Trump, on the other hand, is behaving with utter disregard for even the pretense that he ought to obey the law, operating instead with the same wantonly criminal mentality that has been his north star his entire, obscenely entitled life. And that is not because he is a Nietzschean ubermensch. It’s because he’s a lawless cretin.

In the Bulwark last week, Never Trump conservative Charlie Sykes wrote brilliantly about the magnitude of Trump’s unprecedented obstruction. I’ll quote it here at length, because, you know, why reinvent the wheel when Charlie has already built such a beautiful unicycle?

In laying out the case against Donald Trump, the House Intelligence Committee noted that Trump ”is the first President in the history of the United States to seek to completely obstruct an impeachment inquiry undertaken by the House of Representatives under Article I of the Constitution, which vests the House with the ‘sole Power of Impeachment.’”

The report noted that the president “has publicly and repeatedly rejected the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his actions and has directly challenged the authority of the House to conduct an impeachment inquiry into his actions regarding Ukraine”……

This makes Trump historically unique. As of today, Congress has received only a single document from the Administration: the read-out of the July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. Everything else is behind the Trumpian stonewall, along with testimony of key players from Mick Mulvaney to John Bolton.

No other president,” the report concludes, “has flouted the Constitution and power of Congress to conduct oversight to this extent.” Richard Nixon famously resisted releasing the White House tapes until compelled by the Supreme Court, but nevertheless “accepted the authority of Congress to conduct an impeachment inquiry and permitted his aides and advisors to produce documents and testify to Congressional committees.”

Let us pause a moment to take that in.

Trump is saying, in effect, that Congress has no right to investigate him. The actual charges in question are irrelevant, because in Trump’s view it doesn’t matter. He can do whatever he pleases and Congress can’t say boo. And that, my friends, is the very definition of autocracy.

If and when these articles of impeachment come before the Senate, surely including obstruction of the investigation as one of its charges, the broader GOP is going to have to stand up in public and announce if it agrees. If it blithely excuses Trump’s obstruction, we will have crossed an extremely dangerous line. And right now, we have every reason to believe that is exactly what the Republican Party intends to do.

SLOW YOUR ROLL (GOP STYLE)

At the same time that the Trump administration is engaging in this Guinness Book of World Records-worthy obstructionism, its amen corner in the Republican leadership and right wing media is arguing that the Democrats are moving too fast on impeachment. This was the deliberately disingenuous argument made last week before the House Judiciary Committee by the GOP’s own handpicked witness, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, one that can be summarized as, “What’s the hurry?”

As with most of the GOP’s die-in-place defense of Trump, it is a process argument that tellingly fails to rebut any of the actual allegations against him—always the sign of a weak hand. But that’s the least of it.

Turley’s argument that impeaching on less than full and total evidence cheapens the process and lowers the bar for removal of a president is the height of dishonesty, since—do I really need to say this?—it is the White House itself that is that is illegally withholding that very evidence. You can’t refuse to comply with a process and then complain that the process is proceeding without you. (Unless your surname rhymes with “garbage dump.”) One has to admire the chutzpah, except for the part where that chutzpah destroys our democracy.

At the core of Turley’s circular “logic” is the ultimate deceit of the Trump/GOP position. They are employing this irrational, Kafkaesque defense because they cannot defend his actions on their merits, such as they are.

Turley’s performance ought to have made him the laughingstock of the faculty cafeteria. His white dude bias, on the hand, is top notch. The Nation reports: “During the confirmation battle for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor—the first woman of color ever nominated to the Supreme Court—Turley argued that his thorough ‘review’ of 30 Sotomayor opinions revealed that she lacked the ‘intellectual depth’ of a good Supreme Court nominee.” (In other news, Quasimodo calls J-Lo ugly.)

And let’s go back even further with the amazing Jonathan. The Nation again:

In 1998, testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee during the Clinton impeachment hearing, Turley said, “No matter how you feel about President Clinton, no matter how you feel about the independent counsel, by his own conduct, he has deprived himself of the perceived legitimacy to govern. You need both political and legal legitimacy to govern this nation, because the President must be able to demand an absolute sacrifice from the public at a moment’s notice.”

It’s impossible to explain the shameless hypocrisy of Turley’s conflicting statements without concluding that his testimony, in both hearings, was offered in bad faith. Can Turley really expect us to believe that he would support impeachment if Trump lied about what he got on Volodymyr Zelensky’s blue dress, but would also support Bill Clinton’s right to extort a foreign power to influence an American election?….

 Back then, Turley was lauded by people like Rush Limbaugh for demanding that Clinton’s own Secret Service agents be subpoenaed to testify about what they know. You’ll note that Turley made no such demands yesterday of former national security adviser John Bolton or Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney….

Luckily, Turley’s argument is moot. The Mt. Everest of evidence already on hand is more than sufficient for articles of impeachment, and indeed conviction. The very act of stonewalling makes Trump look super duper guilty (I’m using the technical legal term), which any sentient person not shitfaced on Fox News-brand Kool Aid can see, and is itself impeachable conduct.

TOO LEGIT TO QUIT

Turley’s specious arguments are part of a broader GOP stance that is only slightly more sophisticated than Trump’s juvenile position that “I can do whatever I want” (but only slightly).

That Republican position stops short of rejecting the whole concept of impeachment, but holds that this particular process is so out of order that cooperating would only “legitimize” it, thus opening future presidents up to similar indefensible attack by radical, out-of-control opponents. (Somewhere in the ninth circle of hell, Dick Nixon is smiling.)

Two reasons that’s a joke.

First of all, per above, if the White House and GOP had evidence that would absolve Donald Trump of these offenses, they would certainly air it—especially if they thought the whole impeachment was a charade. The Trump administration isn’t exactly known for its subtlety or restraint.

But they don’t and they can’t.

Secondly, the claim of illegitimacy itself is the real howler, when everything about this impeachment has been done by the book. It is precisely the mechanism the Founders created for a scenario of this exact sort. You might be a Republican who thinks this particular application of it is groundless, that the evidence is just not there, and that the Senate ought to vote to acquit. (You might also be on crack, but still.) But no serious person can argue that the process itself is illegitimate. To do so is to say there is no impeachment clause at all, and to say there is no impeachment clause is to say that we are a monarchy. In that regard, the GOP’s fancier argument is really no different than Trump’s crude one.

The autocracy-curious GOP is very keen on the letter of the law when it comes to the President’s unilateral authority to do things that infuriate the other party (and huge swaths of the public), like ordering the Muslim travel ban, or re-allocating budget money to build a beaded curtain on the southern border. But when it comes to the House exercising its own Constitutionally-mandated authority, suddenly they cry “Overreach!”

As we are reminded ad nauseam, impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. If in the last decade the Republican House had had the votes to impeach Obama for the infamous khaki suit, or for putting Dijon mustard on his hamburger, or for taking off his jacket in the Oval Office (all real things that Republicans were outraged over), it would have been within its rights to do so. It would have been absurd, and therefore counterproductive to Republican fortunes, but not unconstitutional. (Otherwise they would surely have tried it.) That is why the Founders set the bar for conviction in the Senate so high, at a two-thirds majority. If a frivolous or even merely weak case for impeachment is brought, the Presidency should defend itself, as Bill Clinton did. Categorically refusing to do so implies guilt, not principle. But to say that impeachment is illegitimate full stop and therefore the White House is within its rights to defy it is about the most extreme and anti-constitutional position an American political party could take. And that is the position that the Trump administration and a good many of its defenders in the Republican Party are taking.

GASLIGHT FEELS RIGHT

Let us return briefly to the great legal scholar and totally not a partisan hack Jon Turley.

In addition to his “what’s the hurry?” argument, Mr. Turley also told the House Judiciary Committee that he believes that Trump should not be impeached based on the evidence presented thus far, but that “if you prove a quid pro quo, then you might have an impeachable offense.”

Is he kidding, or is he seriously arguing that Trump did not withhold military aid to Ukraine (and a White House meeting for President Zelenskyy) for personal gain, after a parade of witnesses before the House Intelligence Committee, including firsthand testimony from EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, established that he did precisely that?

This is Republican gaslighting at its finest.

Needless to say, Republicans would shriek with outrage and scorn if a Democratic politician tried to make the same specious claim, and they would be right to do so. The GOP is clinging to the “no quid” argument the same way the Mafia claims that a Mob boss is innocent because he didn’t explicitly say in writing, “Take this handgun and go shoot Vinnie ‘The Elbow’ Scarfone in the face outside Umberto’s.” (Which is precisely why we have the RICO Act.)

And I’m not a constitutional law professor, but even if Trump hadn’t extorted Kyiv by withholding items of value, just asking a foreign power to interfere in an American election is illegal. (Or so I learned during “The Bob Mueller Show,” which ran on MSNBC from 2017-19.)

I bring this up because it goes directly to the dishonesty of Turley’s other argument about undue haste, and the White House’s blanket refusal to cooperate with the inquiry. The fact that Turley propagated the “no quid pro quo” fiction suggests that NO amount of evidence will be acknowledged as sufficient, and the Republican Party will continue to reject demonstrable reality. And once they plant that black flag of nihilism, they have no more credibility whatsoever and there is no having any rational discussion with them.

The real reason for that blanket refusal, as Charlie Sykes also notes in his recent Bulwark piece, is that it is working. Again, he deserves quoting at length:

As galling as it may be to acknowledge it, the reality is that Trump’s effort to obstruct Congress is a success, much like his well-documented efforts to obstruct the Mueller probe. The House decision not to push for the enforcement of its subpoenas virtually guarantees that the case will go to the Senate without volumes of pertinent evidence.

I am among those who think the evidence at hand is more than sufficient to justify Trump’s impeachment. But his partisan supporters will continue to declare the effort a sham and the case unproven and unironically complain about the lack of direct evidence—ignoring Trump’s all-out effort to conceal it from Congress.

Historians, who will know far more about Trump’s conduct that we do now, will marvel at how much evidence of his misconduct was left on the table. They will have access to documents, emails, text messages, memoirs, and transcripts (the United States vs. Giuliani?) that we have not seen.

At least some of them will write, “in fairness…” and then note the comprehensive nature of Trump’s obstruction. But, by then, Trump will have been acquitted by the senate and claimed exoneration.

For Trump, this is the lesson that he learned from the Mueller probe – investigations can be successfully obstructed, the rule of law be damned.

And this goes to the heart of the current impeachment effort: the obstruction is not a sideshow: it is heart of Trump’s attack on constitutional norms. In effect, he is in the process of shattering the system of checks and balances that we have relied on to check executive power. If he continues to succeed, it will set both a political and constitutional precedent that will be all but impossible to reverse.

That is an exceptionally depressing assessment, but sadly, an accurate one.

But none of this obstruction would succeed if the GOP did not excuse and condone and actively abet it. And the GOP would not do that if there was not an electoral benefit…..in other words, because they know that sixty-some million right wing Americans are totally supportive of it. The day that Donald Trump is acquitted by the quisling Republican majority in the Senate will be a dark day for American democracy. But the real point is the extent to which the Republican rank and file is totally fine with it.

WE DON’T NEED THIS FASCIST GROOVE THANG

We rightly blame Trump for being a human colostomy bag, and the GOP for creating the conditions that gave rise to him, and for protecting him to the ends of the earth for their own venal interests. But we also need to recognize that this is not a strictly top down phenomenon, but rather the result of the great mass of our own countrymen who have incentivized the GOP to do that, and continue to do so.

I don’t contend that most Republicans see themselves as championing the cause of fascism. That is precisely the problem. They have become so brainwashed by decades of Fox News indoctrination that they don’t even recognize the actions of this administration as anti-democratic, or hypocritical, or unconstitutional, or simply wrong. Their ability to think critically is gone. Call me an elitist libtard, say I’m part of the problem, or what have you, but it’s the truth. The tribalism has become so intense that many Republicans and other right wing Americans see Democrats and progressives as inherently evil, assaulting “democracy” at every turn, and their own tribe as inherently good and decent and right at all times. That is the mentality of a cult, not a rational political organization. And—anticipating the pushback here, Trumpers—part of that tribalism is to accuse the other side of being just as tribalistic and unable to think critically, an ouroboros of self-justifying false equivalence that powers this perpetual motion disinformation machine. See above re the flat earth.

We know that the plutocrats and kleptocrats and jingoists who comprise the Republican leadership, with their fetish for the unitary executive theory, tend to favor an authoritarian state that facilitates their greed, both foreign and domestic, vastly preferring it to representative democracy with its messy “will of the people” and all that rot. We also know Trump has a hard-on for despots, as shown by his man-crush on Putin, his praise for Kim and Xi and Duterte, his kowtowing to Erdogan, and his shameful, ongoing defense of Riyadh. The real crisis for our country began with the merger of these two poisonous forces, when the GOP accidentally discovered that it could weaponize this demagogic con man for its own purposes. That is tragic, and chilling, but easy enough to understand.

What is more mysterious is why ordinary rank-and-file Republicans are predisposed to crave an autocracy, or for that matter, why anyone would do so who is not part of the ruling class that has profit participation in it. Perhaps it is for the same reason that conservative working and middle class people—especially in the US—habitually vote against their own economic interests (“Hey, I’ll be rich someday too!”). Or perhaps, through nature or nurture, they are desperate for a cruel daddy figure to make them feel safe and/or boss them around. I don’t know.

But it goes without saying that all of these right wingers, mandarins and hoi polloi alike, only admire and condone such autocracy from the right. American conservatives, you will recall, were red faced with fury over Barack Obama’s alleged “imperial presidency“ and his use of executive orders. A left wing president who engaged in even a fraction of Trump’s abuses of power would likely lead to violent uprising by our heavily armed, Kid Rock-listening, Stars-and-Bars-waving countrymen. We are way beyond simple tribalism here and into a dangerously irrational realm.

An example. Just last week another great American, Ken Starr—cementing his place in infamy as a partisan bagman without a shred of integrity—accused Nancy Pelosi of “abusing her power” and suggested that the Senate might just dismiss articles of impeachment out of hand. I am skeptical of that prediction, but not because I think McConnell would never be so shameless. (Two words: Merrick Garland.) I think that under the right conditions Mitch would do it faster than his wife can funnel money to her relatives back home. But I suspect the GOP would prefer a show trial that they and Trump can use to claim “total and complete exoneration.”

But the greater point is the sheer hypocrisy of this American Javert. Starr sure does have a different standard for presidential misbehavior than he did in the late ‘90s, not unlike his former underling Brett Kavanaugh, who now believes a sitting president should not even be investigated while in office, let alone charged with a criminal offense. Next step: making the whole idea of a Democrat in the White House impossible by declaring any election that puts one there illegitimate by definition.

Think the GOP won’t go that far? OK. We shall see.

REPUBLIC’S END

As the author Michael Gruber writes, “The GOP is acting like a party that will never have to face a free and fair election again.” Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that it thinks it will not.

The entire history of the Trump presidency thus far is the story of a rapid slide into bald-faced one-man rule, to include the debasement of free elections. If Senate Republicans are now willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have said in effect that we are not a representative democracy at all, and the president is in fact a king. And kings don’t need no stinking elections.

Even with the upcoming Republican primaries, the GOP is taking no chances, canceling many of those elections (in eight states so far) rather than give anyone a chance to challenge Trump. As Charlie Sykes also points out in the Bulwark (it was a big week for Charlie), that in itself bespeaks not strength but weakness. For a president who likes to brag about his sky-high approval ratings within his party what is he so afraid of? Shouldn’t he welcome the chance to display his alleged dominance? Hell, even tinhorn tyrants like Putin and Kim at least pretend to hold elections to provide a veneer of legitimacy to their rule.

So be careful what you wish for, Republicans. You might like an autocracy fine when it foists your chosen one on snowflakes like me, but you might not like it so much when you’re the foistee.

For three years now I have been in a near-constant state of blood pressure-popping fury at what is happening to and in our country. (Did anyone notice? I think I hid it pretty well.) Weirdly, I am now finding that recognizing the all-out Republican embrace of autocracy actually calms me down a little. Once the claim of GOP belief in democracy is completely exposed as the farce it is, it’s easier to face—and in some ways easier to fight. I no longer feel quite so enraged by Republican lies, hypocrisy, and other crimes, because we no longer even pretend to believe in the same values or form of government. We are fast approaching the point where there’s no denying that we live in an unrepentant authoritarian state, ruled by a maliciously ignorant manchild whom the party happily uses to advance its hateful agenda, in return for which they allow him to enrich himself and his brood, and shield him from rightful legal accountability.

Yeah, that sounds like what the Founders had in mind in 1787, doesn’t it?

And if Trump manages to win again in 2020, legitimately or otherwise, the idea of Donald unchained in a second term is a truly chilling one. His acquittal itself will do grievous damage to the republic; if he subsequently gets four more years, it is fair to ask whether our republic will survive at all in any kind of recognizable form.

If we do not act to hold Trump accountable, either through removal by impeachment or by electoral defeat, his behavior will continue and indeed get worse. Indeed, it is continuing even now. Even as the impeachment barrels forward, Rudy Giuliani was just on the ground in Ukraine continuing to engage in the very behavior that has put this presidency at existential risk. It was a gobsmacking sight. But this administration is giving the finger not only to the impeachment inquiry but the rule of law full stop, knowing that the GOP has its back, and thus planting the flag of autocracy on the White House lawn. And sixty-some million Americans seem perfectly fine with that.

Until that changes, this nightmare will continue.

***********

Illustration: LP cover of George Harrison’s Wonderwall Music (1968), by Bob Gill. (Read more about the creative friction in its gestation and the reason for the missing brick.)

 

Will We Go Into the Darkness?

Will We

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that an epic moment for the future of our country looms ahead.

In public hearings over the past two weeks, Congressional Democrats have laid out an overwhelming case that Donald Trump committed high crimes and misdemeanors in the Ukraine scandal. I am aware that right wing America does not see it that way. But right wing America also believes that Donald Trump is a corruption-fighting superhero, a lavishly generous philanthropist, a devoted enemy of Vladimir Putin, and a very stable genius. (Also: that climate change is a hoax.)

It goes without saying that if a Democratic president had committed even a fraction of these offenses, the GOP would already be outside the White House with pitchforks and torches (purchased from Lowe’s). I refer you once again to Obama’s khaki-colored suit.

But this goes way beyond mere partisanship. We are at a point where one of our two major parties and millions of its supporters are contemplating an action that undermines the very fundamental principles at the core of our democracy. I should specify that by that I mean the Republican Party and its willingness to excuse Trump’s behavior, because—per above—its rank-and-file believe it is the Democrats doing precisely that. But their conviction only proves my point, in that Trump and his supporters now reject proper Congressional oversight over the executive branch in favor of the redefinition of President Donald Trump as a king.

A BIG BOWL OF WRONG

After a world class display of goalpost-moving since the Ukraine scandal first broke, the GOP now seems to have settled on the argument that Trump’s behavior was wrong, but not impeachable.

There are two big problems with that.

First, it’s patently absurd. To excuse his actions in the Ukraine would be to affirm that the President can bribe foreign officials for his own gain using Congressionally-allocated taxpayer dollars, and then blatantly obstruct right and proper investigations into that behavior, to include witness tampering and intimidation. As Andrew Sullivan writes, “If that is the president’s position—that he can constitutionally ask any other country to intervene on his behalf in a US election—it represents a view of executive power that is the equivalent of a mob boss’s.” (I know many on the left are permanently furious with Sullivan and won’t read anything he writes. I have my issues with him myself, but he is right on the money there.)

Again, imagine if a Democratic president, blah blah blah. That is not to engage in whataboutist tit-for-tat, but merely to expose the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the GOP position. We know that Trump has boasted that Article II of the Constitution gives him “the right to do whatever I want.” (Someone must have told him that there was such as thing as “Article II.” Or a “Constitution.”) Such is his troglodyte interpretation of American democracy. But we are now on the verge of watching the GOP confirm that it agrees.

The second problem is that Trump himself is constantly undermining the “wrong but not impeachable” stance.

I know they’ll find a way, but how are Republicans plausibly going to mount that defense when Trump keeps tweeting things like: “Republicans, don’t be led into the fools trap of saying it was not perfect, but is not impeachable … NOTHING WAS DONE WRONG!” Ironically, the GOP’s defense of last resort might actually save him, but with characteristic mulishness, he refuses to play along, insisting on his absolute monarchist vision of the presidency.

It’s obvious that Trump was emboldened by having escaped justice in Russiagate. (The pressure campaign against Kyiv had begun months before, but it’s no coincidence that the fateful July 25, 2019 call with Zelinskyy came the very day after Bob Mueller’s anti-climactic testimony before Congress.) If Trump is not held accountable now, he clearly will do this sort of thing again.

As David Frum writes, he’s probably doing it right now.

PROFILES IN COURAGE (NOT)

The idea that Senate Republicans will give Trump a get-out-of-jail-free card is infuriating and indefensible, but after watching the despicable behavior of House Republicans during the last two weeks of hearings, we better get used to it.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself. As I say, the impeachment case is mighty strong, and although the conventional wisdom is still that there’s no way twenty Republican Senators suddenly become vertebrates, a lot can change in the next few months, especially if Trump continues to be his own worst enemy. Look at how fast this whole scandal has unfolded, how fast impeachment—once thought to be dead as disco—came to the point of fruition from a standing start, and how fast public opinion has shifted to support it.

But the odds still remain that, absent a switch to a secret ballot (which is not actually all that farfetched), Trump will be acquitted by the Senate, through sheer willingness to put party over principle and over country.

The canary in the coalmine is Congressman Will Hurd (R-Texas), a reasonable seeming African-American former CIA officer who isn’t even running for re-election in 2020, and who represents what ought to be the most moderate and rational wing of the GOP. Yet Hurd, a member of the House Intelligence Committee who was present for the testimony of witnesses over the past two weeks, subsequently stated that he thinks Trump’s actions don’t merit impeachment, reflecting at worst a “misguided foreign policy.”

That’s like saying the secret bombing of Cambodia was a “careless handling of ammunition.”

If Will Hurd won’t vote for impeachment, no Republican will.

Former Republican Congressman David Jolly of Florida, speaking to Nicole Wallace, gave this perfect summary of the GOP’s shameful role at this critical moment in American history:

These are, in today’s Republican Party, spineless politicians, rotten to the core. Without virtue, without any level of human integrity. Devoid of self respect, self reflection. Without courage and without the moral compass to recognize their own malevolence. And one day maybe they will have the recognition of how they failed the country and themselves in this moment. But that would be giving them credit that somewhere down deep they have the goodness to recognize how to reconcile their own failings with what is right and just in American politics, and frankly, what is right and wrong in the eyes of adults and children alike….

I agree they inevitably will make the case this is not impeachable. The problem is it requires every single Republican to align with Donald Trump and say that only Donald Trump speaks the truth. That Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, a man of honor and Purple Heart recipient, does not speak the truth. Ambassador McKinley, somebody who’s referred to as the ‘dean of the foreign service corps,’ does not speak the truth. Ambassador Yovanovitch, somebody who dedicated her life to promoting freedom and US ideals on the world stage, does not speak the truth. Only Donald Trump does. And there is no greater example of selling your soul to a charlatan than what Republicans are doing right now in the House and the Senate. And their legacies are on the line just as much as Donald Trump’s. We know the character of Donald Trump. We know the failings of Donald Trump. Watching play out in this impeachment proceeding is the failings of a Republican Party and every single member that goes along with this.

All you need to know about the modern GOP is that a man of principle like David Jolly felt compelled to leave it.

DECISION POINTS #1 AND #2

So let me state the patently obvious. If the Republican majority in the Senate blocks the removal of Donald Trump from office despite the manifest evidence of his abuse of power and other high crimes, it will be a dark day for the United States of America. It will mean, in short, that one of our two political parties has abandoned any semblance of respect for the rule of law. That should not come as a shock, given the GOP’s decades-long descent into neo-authoritarianism. But an acquittal of Trump would be the final nail in the coffin of conservative credibility.

In the final act of Watergate, when Nixon’s crimes became undeniable, the mandarins of the Republican Party did the right thing—belatedly perhaps, but they did it. Sen. Barry Goldwater, House Minority Leader John Jacob Rhodes, and Senate Minority Leader Hugh Scott famously went to the White House and privately told Dick it was time to go. And he went.

Neither thing—Republican courage nor presidential acceptance of his fate—is likely to happen this time. And let’s bear in mind that Watergate, terrible as Nixon’s sins were, was a far less serious abuse of presidential power than what Trump has done.

Assuming Trump survives trial in the Senate, the next inflection point will be the election, which at the current optempo, figures to hit about eight to ten months later, and will be perhaps our last chance to put out this housefire and save the republic.

As I have argued over and over, echoing the thinking of many Democratic strategists, merely by laying out his crimes and general unfitness for office the impeachment process might damage Trump badly enough to doom him next November. In a functional democracy, it wouldn’t even be a question.

In that sense, the presumptive GOP decision to put party over country might prove a shortsighted calculation. If enough Americans are sufficiently disgusted by this Republican display of dishonesty, hypocrisy, and cowardice, the GOP might pay a hefty price in 2020, from the top of the ballot all the way down. Indeed, the indefensible defense of Trump might haunt and hobble the GOP for years to come. (I’ll stop short of the wishful thinking that it will be fatally wounded and go the way of its ideological forebear, the Know-Nothings. After all, just six years after Nixon resigned the GOP took back the White House.)

Then again, it might not pay that price at all. As I’ve written before, my nightmare, like that of many Americans, is that Trump not only survives impeachment but manages to get re-elected. He may do so “legitimately,” under the anti-democratic, countermajoritarian mechanism of the Electoral College (it wouldn’t be the first time), or illegitimately, through outright criminality. Since both paths involve voter suppression, black propaganda, rivers of dark money, violations of campaign finance laws, and other skullduggery, including the assistance of foreign powers, the line between legitimate and illegitimate is pretty fuzzy.

But we cannot lay off a potential Trump win as a flatout train robbery by the RNC, not even if it’s with the help of a certain Mr. V. Putin, late of St. Petersburg. If it is a train robbery, it’s one where a fair number of the passengers are in on the crime.

Lest we forget, sixty-two million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016, for whatever reason: three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, yet still an appallingly high number. Ironically, Trump might cobble together an even bigger Electoral College win next time around while losing the popular vote by an even bigger margin—an outcome that cannot be described as democratic by any reasonable definition of the term. To those conservatives who bluffly shrug and say, “Tough luck, that’s just how the Founders built our system” (or make some flimsy gesture at justifying it with blather about states’ rights), I would suggest that they would be far less sanguine if that system happened to favor the other side. The egregious flaws of the Electoral College are a book-length essay all by themselves, but suffice it to say that the institution was from the very start designed to benefit the Southern slaveholding states, and continues to do so to this day.

Trump’s first victory could maybe be written off as a fluke. The rest of the world looks at us right now more with pity than scorn. But if we return this cretin to office for a second term, even allowing for the skewing of the popular will by the Electoral College and other vote-distorting factors, we will forfeit that sympathy. And we will deserve to lose it.

APRÈS HIM, LE DÉLUGE

If Trump manages to remain in power for a second term, our system of government is likely to become unrecognizable, and not in a good way. It may be game over for American democracy as we know it, and once it is gone, the path to getting it back is formidable indeed.

Given the no-holds-barred, Louis XIV-meets-Roy Cohn manner in which he has behaved in his first term, an emboldened Trump is sure to be even more uncontrollable and flagrantly criminal in a second, when unconstrained by considerations of re-election.….except to the extent that he might well piss on the 22nd Amendment and run again, or just declare himself el presidente-for-life, as he has repeatedly “joked.” In any event, we can expect the neo-authoritarianism of the past three years to dramatically shift into flatout autocracy, and as some wag opined, look forward to Ivanka as Secretary of State, Roe v. Wade overturned, a shooting war with Iran, and Trump’s face on the $100 bill.

Think that’s Trump Derangement Syndrome? OK. Meanwhile, I’ll remind you that we have children in concentration cases on our southern border.

But, hey, I’m sure a second term will cause him to ’“pivot” and become “so presidential we’ll be bored,” as Donald promised during 2016.

No republic had lasted forever, of course. Right now, ours is experiencing a stress test unlike any in our history. There have been darker times—the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Depression, the Second World War, to name just a few—but no threat to the foundations of democratic rule quite like the one we are now facing.

Very popular lately is the story of Ben Franklin leaving the constitutional convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and approached by a prominent woman named Elizabeth Willing Powel who asked what sort of government the founders had resolved to form. “A republic, if you can keep it,” was Big Ben’s famous reply. (It’s even the title of a recent book by none other than Neil Gorsuch.) The Founders lived a lot closer to the menace of autocracy than we do, and were painfully cognizant of how fragile a representative democracy would be. In fact, in human history there had never been one of the precise sort they envisioned.

More than two hundred years later we’ve grown complacent and spoiled, but the fragility of government of, by, and for the people remains unchanged.

CLEAVAGE, AND NOT THE GOOD KIND

We are about to find out how many of our fellow Americans would prefer to live in a right wing autocracy than a proper representative democracy. Again, I specify “right wing autocracy” because, of course, those folks who are so keen on King Donald the First would never in a million years go for this sort of authoritarian regime were it headed by an Elizabeth Warren.

The author Michael Gruber puts it well:

Russia is aspirational to current Republicans. They want a nation where the press is muzzled, where political opponents can be arrested and killed with impunity, where gays are oppressed, where the state and church are essentially one, where women are eliminated from serious political power, where Muslims and foreigners are despised and oppressed, also with impunity, and where everyone is white. This is their vision of America’s future, and four in ten of our fellow citizens agree.

Along those same lines, the aforementioned Andrew Sullivan’s recent New York magazine column “This Is No Ordinary Impeachment” was such a tour de force that for my own blog this week I contemplated just reprinting it in its entirety. But since my lawyer has advised me that that would be unwise, I’ll merely quote from it at length.

Sullivan writes that this is more than just an impeachment, but a question of “whether the legitimacy of our entire system can last much longer without this man being removed from office.”

(Trump) believes in the kind of executive power the Founders designed the US Constitution to prevent. It therefore did not occur to Trump that blackmailing a foreign country to investigate his political opponents is a classic abuse of power, because he is incapable of viewing his own interests and the interests of the United States as in any way distinct….

This is not just another kind of presidency; it is a rolling and potentially irreversible assault on the legitimacy of the American regime. If the CIA finds something that could reflect poorly on him, then the CIA is part of the “deep state coup.” Ditto the FBI and the State Department. These are not old-fashioned battles with a bureaucracy over policy; that’s fine. They are assaults on the legitimacy of the bureaucracy, and the laws they are required to uphold. These are definitional impeachable offenses, and they are part and parcel of Trump’s abuse of power from the day he was elected.

That’s all bad enough. But this cancer is not confined to one gobsmackingly terrible human being. No no, as we surveyed above, it is much worse than that:

Trump has turned the GOP—one of our two major parties with a long and distinguished history—into an accomplice in his crimes. Senator Lindsey Graham, perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years, even says he will not read witness transcripts or follow the proceedings in the House or consider the evidence in a legal impeachment inquiry, because he regards the whole impeachment process as “BS” and a “sham.” This is a senator calling the constitutional right of the House of Representatives to impeach a president illegitimate.

Thus it is the Republican Party, to repeat what has become a tired but immutable refrain, that is even more to blame and more of a threat than Trump himself, and will remain so even after he is gone. After all, it was the GOP leadership that allowed him to rise; this was no hostile takeover, but rather an piteous, voluntary surrender. It is the GOP leadership that has consistently protected and abetted him and used him to further its own despicable agenda, even in defiance of the popular will and rule of law, not to mention its bluff assurances that it would rise up in opposition if he went too far. Instead the GOP and its red-hatted flat-earther constituency has slipped further and further into an eager embrace of full-blown authoritarianism.

For the Republican leadership could not do what it has done without the passionate support of the rank-and-file. In fact, given the way Republican pols—even the most established—seem to tremble at incurring the wrath of the Trump base, it is often hard to tell who is leading whom. Sullivan again:

Sixty-two percent of Republican supporters have said that there is nothing Trump could do, no crime or war crime, no high crime or misdemeanor, that would lead them to vote against him in 2020. There is only one way to describe this, and that is a cult, completely resistant to reason or debate. The tribalism is so deep that Trump seems incapable of dropping below 40 percent in the national polls, and is competitive in many swing states. The cult is so strong that Trump feels invulnerable. If Trump survives impeachment, and loses the 2020 election, he may declare it another coup, rigged, and illegitimate. He may refuse to concede. And it is possible the GOP will follow his lead. That this is even thinkable reveals the full extent of our constitutional rot.

It has often been remarked that Trump is a symptom rather than the cause of our national illness, which is true enough. For as much damage as he has done and continues to do, there is no denying that a system that would allow Donald Trump to become head of state is not healthy in the first place.

Sullivan suggests that the US is in the throes of “regime cleavage,” that dangerous state of affairs in which a society ceases to have a consensus about the system government it desires.

(I)t is described by one political scientist as follows: “a division within the population marked by conflict about the foundations of the governing system itself in the American case, our constitutional democracy. In societies facing a regime cleavage, a growing number of citizens and officials believe that norms, institutions, and laws may be ignored, subverted, or replaced.” A full-on regime cleavage is, indeed, an extinction-level event for our liberal democratic system. And it is one precipitated by the man who is supposed to be the guardian of that system, the president.

He concludes by bucking the conventional wisdom that it would be better for our democracy to remove Trump at the polls than by impeachment, arguing that the former would only further normalize him and his behavior, even in electoral defeat:

(To defeat Trump in an election) would suggest that his assault on the truth, on the Constitution, and on the rule of law is just a set of policy decisions that we can, in time, reject. It creates a precedent for future presidents to assault the legitimacy of the American government, constrained only by their ability to win the next election. In fact, the only proper constitutional response to this abuse of executive power is impeachment. I know I’ve said this before. But on the eve of public hearings, it is vital to remember it.

This blog is subtitled “Dispatches from the American Twilight.” We are about to see whether that pessimistic description is accurate, and if we are indeed living on the edge of sundown.

********

AP photo by Carolyn Kaster

 

Dreyfus’s Ghost

LTC-alexander-vindman copy

Yesterday I watched something on TV that is destined to go down in history as one of the darkest moments of American political theater since the McCarthy hearings.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Trump era—one that I’ve written about at length—is the headspinning sight of the Republican Party abandoning many of its core attributes (I won’t call them principles), from its longstanding suspicion of Russia, to its hyperventilating hysteria over deficits, to its commitment to NATO and a hawkish foreign policy. And all this it has done in cowering submission to a sociopathic two-bit con man, in pursuit of raw power unfettered by any concern for the Constitution, the rule of law, or representative democracy.

Grand Old Party indeed.

But perhaps most appalling in that fire sale of all things the GOP used to hold dear has been the vicious Republican slander of members of the US military…..a class of people that the right wing has deified, and to whom it has demanded lavish tribute from all others, including the opposition party.

That phenomenon reached a new low yesterday with the vicious attacks on Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

There’s no need for me to detail the range of attacks, but to skim them briefly: Vindman is unreliable, his judgment is in question, what he says is “just his opinion,” he’s a Never Trumper, he’s disloyal to the White House, hell he’s disloyal to the United States itself (which in Trumpworld is the same thing), and on and on all the way up to full-on espionage—which is to say, treason.

It’s one thing for Trump to sink to that low. (Does he need to sink? I think he dwells in that Marianas Trench.) It’s quite another for the entire Republican Party to fall in line. But we saw it yesterday from Trump’s amen chorus of toadies and craven sycophants (featuring Devin Nunes, Gym Jordan, John Ratcliffe, Elise Stefanik, and Lee Zeldin among others) as they obediently followed their rancid champion’s lead.

This gives the lie to the entire Republican claim to respect for the military, or duty, or honor, or service. This is how shallow it runs, and how quickly they will jettison it for partisan advantage. (Or in this case, a desperate attempt to shield their leader from rightful accountability under the law.)

Of course, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is not the first American warrior to be subjected to this demonstration of the Republican Party’s moral bankruptcy. The late John McCain, the Gold Star family of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, Admiral Bill McRaven, and Generals H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis are just a few of the military veterans whose service has been shamelessly demeaned by a spoiled brat draft dodger with fictional bone spurs. But the attacks on Colonel Vindman might be the most disgusting because they are so directly connected to Trump’s cornered rat, Roy Cohn-style willingness to do anything to discredit his foes and save his sorry ass.

Even before yesterday’s live testimony, Bush-era torture enthusiast and self-loathing immigrant John Yoo was among the most prominent to wade into the darkest of waters. Speaking to the odious Laura Ingraham (and with a creepily grinning Alan Dershowitz looking on in split screen), Yoo suggested that Colonel Vindman might be a Ukrainian spy. Incredibly, in his subsequent apology/non-apology walking that back, Yoo spent as much time expressing sanctimonious outrage that he was misunderstood—or so he claims—as actually clarifying himself or expressing any contrition. But let me tell you, I heard Mr. Yoo say it live and have watched the replay many times since; it’s not at all clear, as he now insists, that he was accusing Ukraine, not Vindman, of attempted espionage. But I guess a UC Berkeley Law professor can’t be expected to be very articulate or do words good. Right, John?

Lest anyone doubt that these attacks were directed from the very top, Charlie Sykes reports (via the Daily Beast) that the Trump White House took “the extraordinary step of distributing talking points to allies of the president” trashing this active duty US military officer who remains a member of the presidential staff. Notably, some of the attacks on Colonel Vindman came from the official White House Twitter account, which is the very definition of abuse of state power to persecute political enemies. (Yet Bill Barr believes the left are the ones “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law.”)

Regardless of one’s ideology, no thinking person can watch what happened yesterday and still defend this administration, especially those in the military and veteran community, of which I am a proud part.

SHIT ROLLS DOWNHILL, ESPECIALLY WHEN A SHITHEAD IS ATOP THE HILL

Three weeks ago I wrote that, contrary to F-16 flyovers at the Super Bowl, military service is not in and itself ironclad proof of integrity. It’s still true. (Looking at you, Mike Pompeo, USMA ‘86.) But when the GOP ostentatiously pretends that it is, and then behaves as it did to Colonel Vindman, the hypocrisy is too blatant to ignore.

This Republican hypocrisy didn’t begin with Trump, of course—I refer you to the Swift Boating of John Kerry by George W. Bush, veteran of the attendance-optional Texas Air National Guard. But as with many things, it has reached a new low.

Don’t get me wrong: the Republican Party still trades on chestbeating wannabe macho nationalism and fake valorization of the uniformed services. This is a party whose entire brand is that of rock-ribbed commitment to national security and adoration of those who prosecute it at the point of a bayonet. Except when those heroic American warriors threaten Republican hold on power.

But the attacks on Colonel Vindman have been much more extreme than on most of the other witnesses testifying to Trump’s high crimes. Perhaps that is precisely because his pedigree and compelling personal history make him an especially dangerous foe. In the regard, his dress blues attract Republican fire, out of necessity for the GOP, rather than deflecting it. But that makes the attacks more, not less, shameful.

It’s true also that Colonel Vindman is among the most potentially damning witnesses as someone who was actually on the critical July 25th Zelinskyy call, and who can obliterate the GOP’s already Kleenex-thin “hearsay” defense. But Gordon Sondland can do much more damage than Vindman can, and is doing so even as I write this. David Holmes, Bill Taylor, and George Kent are pretty damn damaging too. Yet Vindman has received more abuse than any of them. (Second place: former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who committed both of the paramount sins in the eyes of Donald Trump: she failed to be blindly loyal to him, and she has a vagina.)

So is there maybe something more to the special animus directed at Colonel Vindman?

Never Trump Republican Rick Wilson writes, with his usual panache:

House minority counsel Steven Castor’s line of questioning was pathetic, a transparent attempt to accuse Vindman of dual loyalties that even in this low moment shocked America. His sneering insinuation that Vindman was somehow compromised by the Ukrainian government’s offer of the job of Minister of Defense, an offer he declined and promptly reported, was a moment where even Republican members of the committee looked uncomfortable, and those shameless motherfuckers would watch Trump eat a live baby and laugh it off.

Let’s be blunt. The allusion to “dual loyalties” is an overt employment of the age-old anti-Semitic smear that the patriotism of American Jews like Alexander Vindman is compromised by their religion. There is almost no more despicable slur that can be hurled at an American of the Jewish faith. (Twinned with the anti-Semitism, the GOP also dips back into its traditional Russophobia —and general nativism—just long enough to use it against Vindman, ironically, to the benefit of Vladimir Putin.)

So a Jew and a woman draw the most abuse from Donald Trump. Show of hands if you’re shocked.

This is not the first time that a patriotic Jew has found that wearing the uniform of his country and serving with distinction in combat is insufficient to protect him from charges of disloyalty. But if you’re surprised that the Trump administration would take that line of attack, perhaps you have been vaping something a lot stronger than tutti-frutti flavored propylene glycol.

Heck, I guess there are very fine people on both sides after all.

YOU SPIN ME RIGHT ROUND, BABY, RIGHT ROUND

There were of course other lines of attack on Colonel Vindman, less incendiary but still worth noting.

Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), himself an Air Force veteran, snidely criticized LTC Vindman for wearing his uniform at the hearing. Republicans sure didn’t have any problem with that when Ollie North—who likewise wore civvies when he was on the NSC—put on his Marine Corps Class As to testify during Iran-Contra. North, of course, was among the accused in that scandal, rather than an accuser, and was eventually convicted of conspiring to defraud the United States, the same charge that hung over Trump during Russiagate. Didn’t stop North from later becoming president of the NRA, to bring this survey of Republican criminality full circle.

To paraphrase the newly popular meme: Parents, do you want your kids to grow up to be like Oliver North or Alexander Vindman?

We have not even really talked here about the substance of what the colonel testified to. Suffice it to say, it wasn’t good for MAGA Nation. After Vindman and vice presidential national security advisor Jennifer Williams came Kurt Volker and Tim Morrison, who were supposed to be GOP-friendly witnesses, deliberately summoned by the Republicans in that hope. But they only corroborated the testimony of those who had gone before them. With friends like that, Trump don’t need no enemies.

As if it were not already clear, watching House Republicans yesterday it was patently obvious that the GOP has nothing substantive with which to argue. We’ve known that all along, of course, but it was stunning to watch it in action. In terms of the actual presidential misconduct in question, the GOP couldn’t lay a glove on Vindman or any of the others, but then again, they have been unable to rebut any of the witnesses or evidence in Ukrainegate thus far. Hence their resort to distraction and misdirection (e.g. the obsession with the now-irrelevant identity of the whistleblower), goalpost-moving, and galling attempts at character assassination to include anti-Semitic and xenophobic dog whistling to their white nationalist base.

No doubt this ghoulish charade will be sufficient for Fox Nation. But no thoughtful person of any political persuasion can watch this shitshow and not realize what is going on. Whether that will have a decisive effect on the broader public remains to be seen; I remain cautious.

As John Cassidy writes in the New Yorker:

“Bereft of any substantive defense of Trump, the House Republicans are betting everything on their alternative narrative, in which the deep state and its media allies cooked up the entire Ukraine story. The point isn’t necessarily to make this narrative believable in any objective sense. For the purposes of the White House and its GOP allies, it will suffice to make it believable enough for the conservative media and Trump’s supporters to rally around. That isn’t a high standard to meet.

…..As (LTC Vindman) explained in his opening statement, he has enough faith in his country to believe that, ultimately, the truth will win out. If he’s proved wrong, it will be a tragedy for him and for the rest of us.”

SHOW ME A HERO AND I’LL SHOW YOU A TRAGEDY

I wrote last week about the GOP’s false claim to be the party of patriotism. Hot on its heels, as if made to order, came the attack on Alexander Vindman as powerful proof of my point.

How far will the right wing go to destroy Colonel Vindman and others like him? Based on their behavior thus far, we ought to put nothing past them. Already there are serious concerns. Referencing information first reported in the Wall Street Journal, Max Boot writes:

“(T)he U.S. Army is prepared to move Col. Vindman and his family onto a military base to ensure their security if it is determined that they are in physical danger.” That a war hero might be in physical danger marks a new low in Republican attempts to defame and intimidate the witnesses against the president.

I would add only the bitter irony that this is happening to a man whose family fled the political repression of the USSR when he was a toddler, seeking refuge in a land that claimed to be free.

My affinity for LTC Vindman flows from several tributaries: as a fellow Army infantry officer, as a Brooklynite, and as a Jew (honorary in my case, through marriage and fatherhood), though I in no way presume to approach his courage or integrity. Truly this man, like many of his fellow witnesses, represents the very best of America.

So to recap, we just saw the President of the United States, his son, Republican Congressmen, and conservative pundits wantonly attack a Purple Heart-wearing career infantry officer and combat veteran of the Iraq war. That man’s crime? Daring to stand up and testify under penalty of perjury that the President violated his oath of office.

With Gordon Sondland’s testimony today, Trump is in even more jeopardy than ever, so don’t look for his ferocious and disgusting behavior to get better. No less a Republican shitbag than Ken Starr today suggested that Donald may be headed for a Nixon-style come-to-Jesus meeting with Republican senators, complete with a one-way helicopter ticket to San Clemente, er, I mean Mar-a-Lago. Hope springs eternal.

In the mean time, as I said at the top, the specter of Joe McCarthy hung over yesterday’s hearings…..and not for nothing, but let’s recall that it was McCarthy’s shameful attacks on the US Army that finally undid him, at the hands of the eloquent Joseph Welch.

But there was an even uglier specter haunting the Longworth House Office Building yesterday, one that involved events in fin de siècle France. Look it up.

Play the Marseillaise

Play the Mars

Contrary to popular belief, there are things that can be learned from Trump supporters. It may be in an ethnographic way, the way anthropologists study a lost pre-Columbian tribe. But it’s educational nonetheless.

One of the things I’ve learned from them lately is that they really see themselves as victims. No, I mean REALLY. We all knew that to some extent: a huge part of the post mortem of the 2016 election was endless handwringing in the allegedly liberal “mainstream media” over how globalism had left enormous numbers of working class Rust Belt dwellers high and dry and susceptible to the sale of Trump brand snake oil. (Now with more snakes!). More incisively, other pundits zeroed in on the very real panic among a lot of white conservatives—particularly those of the Christian supremacist variety—that they are losing the demographic chokehold they’ve had on this country for its whole history thus far. Hence the vile battle cry “Take Our Country Back!” in all its not-so-crypto-racist glory.

As Yoni Appelbaum writes in The Atlantic:

In 2016, white working-class voters who said that discrimination against whites is a serious problem, or who said they felt like strangers in their own country, were almost twice as likely to vote for Trump as those who did not. Two-thirds of Trump voters agreed that “the 2016 election represented the last chance to stop America’s decline.” In Trump, they’d found a defender.

(Blame where it’s due: I’ve also heard “Take Our Country Back!” from the left, with no discernible irony or awareness that the other side says it too. I get it, but as a slogan it has serious downsides.)

It’s true that, in the long term, white Christian conservatives are holding the short end of the demographic wishbone. Appelbaum again:

(M)any conservatives, surveying demographic trends…..can see the GOP’s sinking fortunes among younger voters, and feel the culture turning against them, condemning them today for views that were commonplace only yesterday. They are losing faith that they can win elections in the future. With this comes dark possibilities.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I shed no tears for these folks and their “dilemma.” I’m a middle-aged white guy, but the only white people I know who are worried about this trend are those consumed with white identity politics, keeping other folks down, and advancing an agenda at odds with the pluralism and equality on which this country was founded.

In other words, racists.

I would not lump all Republicans in this ignominious clique, by the way, only a subset of them. But it’s a subset that the GOP has weaponized.

We’ll get back to that misplaced sense of victimhood in a moment. But first, let’s go to the movies.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS

Casablanca is often neck in neck with Citizen Kane atop many surveys of the best American movies of all time. (Distant third: Weekend at Bernie’s.) Among its most famous scenes is the one in Rick’s Café Americain (as in, “everybody comes to”) in which a group of Nazi soldiers in occupied Morocco are singing a raucous version of “Die Wacht am Rhein,” drawing the ire of Resistance leader Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid.

Laszlo marches over to the bandstand and firmly tells the bandleader, “Play ‘The Marseillaise.’ Play it!”

The rattled bandleader looks to Rick, played by (do I need to say this?) Humphrey Bogart, who gives him the nod.

The band strikes up the French national anthem. The irritated Germans sing their hateful song louder. But one by one the other patrons of the café realize what’s going on, and join in the Marseillaise, until they have drowned the Germans out.

It’s one of the most stirring scenes in all of motion pictures, as these beleaguered French citizens, under the boot of the most murderous regime in human history, courageously stick a collective finger in Hitler’s eye. (We can leave the thorny issue of French colonialism out of the discussion for now.)

It’s worth noting that this act of theatrical protest results in the Nazis angrily shutting the cafe down, an order obligingly carried out by the collaborationist Vichy authorities in the person of Captain Renault (Claude Rains), on the famous pretext that he is “shocked, shocked” to find gambling going on in the joint. (“Your winnings, sir,” a croupier says immediately thereafter, handing Renault a wad of cash.)

Henreid’s command “Play it!” also echoes perhaps the most famous scene in the movie, when Bogart says the same thing to Dooley Wilson regarding “As Time Goes By”. (Oft misquoted, he never says “Play it again, Sam,” though Ingrid Bergman comes close earlier in the film when she says “Play it once, Sam.”)

Yes, Casablanca is a good movie.

Here in the greasefire that is the United States circa 2019, a scene like the singing of the Marseillaise resonates, and in a way that doesn’t require making exaggerated comparisons or violating Godwin’s Law. (In other words, yes, I know Trump is not in Hitler’s league. But he’s a fanboy.) It feels like how we feel every time that, in some small way, we win any kind of victory, no matter how minuscule or purely symbolic, over the tinhorn tyrant who is doing his level best to destroy everything that we hold dear as a country.

But here’s the problem.

The other side identifies with the Resistance fighters too.

No big surprise, really; no one identifies with the Nazis (except Stephen Miller). Of course, when choosing sides for this particular game of “let’s pretend,” the modern GOP’s resemblance to actual fascists does not help its case.

IN THE END, I BLAME SOCIETY

If you dive into the online conversation among a great many rank-and-file Trump supporters, you will find what seems to be a genuine, deeply aggrieved sense that they are under constant—and even literally physical—attack.

They see themselves as viscerally menaced by antifa, which in right wing world is a force as numerous, ubiquitous, and powerful as the Cold War-era Red Army (or if you prefer, gangsta rap-blasting super-predators of the 1990s, or the caravan of drug-dealing Central American barbarians barreling toward our southern border).

They commiserate over being afraid to put “Trump 2020” signs on their lawns or wear their red MAGA hats in public for fear of angry retaliation from their neighbors and strangers alike. (If that is so, I’m not sure what accounts for the proliferation of both. Perhaps these fearful Republicans live in San Francisco.)

They bemoan the hatred that they say is spewed from the left, the attacks on the president (often identified as “our” president), and the way that—in their view—liberals are sowing division in our country.

And above all, they believe that it is people like them—white conservative Christians, mostly—who are the Americans most egregiously discriminated against.

This last point is the one that has been most widely reported and is therefore least surprising—though no less batshit, or powerful as evidence of just how deep the white sense of entitlement goes.

Do conservative Americans really believe they are a besieged tribe in a society where all the odds are stacked against them? Where all the levers of power are cordoned off and unavailable to them? Where they have to fear for their lives every time they venture out of doors?

The Republican Party controls the White House, the upper chamber of Congress (and until recently the lower one as well), a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court, an increasingly large chunk of the federal judiciary, and a majority of state legislatures and governorships. (And that of course doesn’t even take into account all the other advantages, tangible and intangible, that the dominant race, class, and religious group holds in this society.)

But by all means—they’re the underdogs.

This collective delusion goes beyond legitimate grievances of the white Midwestern working class against a Democratic Party that has been insufficiently attentive. It even goes beyond the illegitimate panic of racists and xenophobes who think if English was good enough for Jesus it’s good enough for America. It is a confidence game-cum-conspiracy theory that has been carefully cultivated and spoonfed to these folks by a political party and the powerful interests it represents….and has now metastasized and become a dangerous distortion of reality internalized by millions of right wing Americans. In that regard, it sits perfectly within the Orwellian perversion of truth that is the sea in which Trump swims, and where we are all drowning.

SELF-PITY PARTY

“Victim” used to be a pejorative. Now it is a badge of honor that brings with it great power. For years conservatives sneered at it for that very reason, especially when deployed by folks whom they had a hand in victimizing and oppressing. For the right, it was emblematic of the “taker” class; they, by contrast, claimed to valorize rugged individualism and pioneer-style self-sufficiency. (Top pioneer skills: selling smallpox-laced blankets, pretending corporate welfare isn’t a thing, and not noticing public services like police, firefighters, and roads.)

In truth, of course, whites have always employed the same trope themselves. The fiction of white people as a valiant breed beleaguered by sinister forces—mostly darker-skinned—is as old as Western civilization. Similarly, when white Christian conservatives (men especially) complain about “political correctness,” what they’re really complaining about is being held to account for their behavior and denied the privilege they’ve traditionally enjoyed at the expense of others, like being able to treat women and racial and religious minorities like shit just because they can. That’s the country they want to “take back.”

But once the right realized how powerful victimhood was as a weapon, it didn’t take them long to embrace it. And with Trump, that phenomenon has reached its apotheosis.

Again in The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf writes:

As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observed in their 2015 paper and later book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, whereas people were once loath to be seen as victims, domination is now “the main form of deviance,” while victimization attracts sympathy, “so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” Sympathetic dollars can follow––as can political support. From the start, Trump has touted his supposed victimhood as no president has before, confident that his supporters won’t hold self-pitying whines against him.

Speaking of movies, in Kasi Lemmons’ new film Harriet, about the woman that Trump and Mnuchin won’t have on the $20 bill, there is an instructive scene that strikes at this very issue. A self-pitying white plantation owner who has fallen on hard times—Harriet Tubman’s former enslaver—tearfully describes feeling like a prisoner in her own plantation, surrounded by “black faces” as her guards. Later, when the woman is confronted by fellow crackers demanding restitution for the hardship that Harriet has caused them by freeing their slaves, she turns the mob to her side by appealing to their common race, and the idea that they are all victims of abolitionism.

Too on the nose? I know some will say so. But for my money, it ought to be required viewing, Ludivico technique-style, for all Fox News followers.

When it comes to claiming the mantle and attendant moral authority of victim, let’s return for a moment to Yoni Appelbaum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, titled “How America Ends,” and the notion that 2016 was the last chance to stop “America’s decline”—which, naturally, white reactionaries see as synonymous with their own loss of power. Appelbaum mentions the incendiary analogy made during the last presidential campaign by conservative writer Michael Anton that “2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die.” That’s a metaphor that, to say the least, plays directly to right wingers’ self-flattering vision of themselves as underdogs and martyrs and heroes…..and, in case you missed it, one that casts Democrats and progressives as radical terrorists bent on mass murder.

It’s worth noting that even in that self-chosen metaphor the Republican Party ends up suicidally crashing the aircraft that is the USA into the ground, killing everyone onboard.

TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING

Speaking of the Marseillaise, ironically, our own national anthem has become a battleground in this very culture war.

Trump, with his preternatural schoolyard bully’s instinct for an opponent’s vulnerabilities—and his grifter’s instinct for a sucker’s weak spot—glommed right onto the NFL controversy as a way of ginning up his racist base. It’s as clear as the hood on his face. Per Samuel Johnson, patriotism is famously the last refuge of a scoundrel; that line was never more apropos than in the case of this man, the least public-service-minded dude ever, and one who predictably screams the loudest about the red, white and blue, needs the highest flagpole, and is leading the hunt for a lynching tree for Colin Kaepernick even as he actively works against the interests of the United States and for his own venal gain.

Given Trump’s original line of work, I am even fonder of George Jean Nathan’s quip that patriotism is the arbitrary veneration of real estate above principles. (As if Donald had any of the latter.) And of course, in the ultimate display of shamelessness, we have seem him viciously attacking the loyalty of true patriots who have unquestionably earned their stripes, from McCain to the Khan family to McRaven to (most recently) Vindman, Taylor, and Yovanovitch.

As there is no evidence that this draft-dodging con artist ever did a single thing in his life to benefit anyone other than himself, his cynical and dishonest exploitation of patriotism is the height of hypocrisy—yet also eminently predictable—as he embodies yet another famous quote, the one about American fascism arriving wrapped in the flag and carrying a Bible. The irony of Trump-as-patriot is twinned with the irony of this thrice-divorced serial adulterer, professional liar, cheat, greedhead, and preening porn star raw dogger as a paragon of Christian faith and virtue.

But the conflating of patriotism with blind loyalty to nation is as old as time and a staple of reactionaryism.

In the John Birch mentality, any criticism of the United States is by definition disloyal, if not openly treasonous. It’s an absurd position, of course, and one with dark, McCarthyite (or, yes, even fascist) implications when taken to its logical extreme. It is a further step beyond even that to equate the United States with its president, Louis XIVth cult of personality style.

Here we go back to the popular right wing bumper sticker of the tumultuous late Sixties: “America: love it or leave it.” The question is, what does it mean to “love” one’s country? Does it mean blind, unquestioning loyalty to what its temporary rulers say or do at any given moment? I’m gonna say, uh, no.

A related quote—and often similarly distorted—is US naval hero Stephen Decatur’s ”My country, right or wrong.” (Like “Play it again, Sam,” a misremembering. His exact quote, circa 1816, was: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”) With all due humility, I don’t think the Commodore was advocating blind obedience. On the contrary, I think he likely meant that we ought to be even more invested in redressing our failures and shortcomings when our country is in the wrong.

Let’s go then to James Baldwin: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Pride in one’s homeland can be an admirable and constructive thing; look at how we encourage it in oppressed communities struggling to assert their identities. It’s only when it tips into nationalism that it becomes toxic, as is often the case with powerful nations, or those riven with divisive internecine strife. (And nationalism of course is itself a kissing cousin of xenophobia and racism.)

The United States’ hyperpower status makes ostentatious displays of patriotism a bit icky. Even in international soccer, one of the few places where the US is a poor relation, it makes me feel a little awkward to be part of “Sam’s Army” chanting “USA! USA! USA!” (The choice of “army” itself is sketchy, either tone deaf to the rattling specter of American militarism or an example of it, predecessors such as the KISS Army and Franco’s Italian Army notwithstanding.)

The right fetishizes the shibboleths of patriotism—the flag, the military, the Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem—and insists that forced respect for them is a precondition of devotion to country. (Because nothing says patriotism like a mandatory display of coerced obedience.) There is no awareness of what those things are supposed to represent—freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom to dissent—and no more perfect example of that than the brouhaha over the NFL players kneeling in respectful protest over police brutality during the national anthem. Here again we see angry white people howling in outrage that a group of fellow Americans visibly wronged—targeted, beaten, and even killed in systemic fashion—have the temerity to mention it.

The right has long tried to assert a monopoly on patriotism, with its bellicose foreign policy (jingoistic, some might say) and ostentatious displays of flag-waving. That conservatives are the best stewards of national security has always been a canard, considering the disastrous foreign policy misadventures they have led us into, from the Red Menace and the arms race, to Nixon’s criminal and self-defeating prosecution of operations in Vietnam, to covert dirty wars in Latin America, coups in the Middle East, and of course the second Iraq war. (Democrats are not blameless either, particularly when it comes to Southeast Asia.)

And that was before Trump came on the scene. Since then, under his, er, leadership the GOP has made an even worse dog’s breakfast of US interests abroad, from getting played by Kim Jong Un, to the idiotic withdrawal from the JCPOA, to the undermining of NATO, to the appalling abandonment of the Kurds and resuscitation of ISIS, to the general emboldening of dictators around the world, to blackmailing Kiev while its soldiers died for want of Javelin missiles, and all of it baldly serving the overall objectives of Vladimir Putin and Russia. (Someone should look into that.)

But patriotism does not belong to conservatives, no matter how much they pretend it does. So let’s blow up the lie that right wingers own the Stars and Stripes, and the warriors who fight on our behalf, and love of country itself.

Indeed, when we look at the contempt it has shown for the rule of law and the most fundamental principles of American democracy over the past three years, there is a strong argument that the modern Republican Party is the most profoundly anti-patriotic organization this side of the Klaus Fuchs Appreciation Society. Internationally, it has become a willing arm of Kremlin policy—a headspinning turn for a party that once had Russophobia as its lodestar. Domestically, it has been ceaseless in its efforts to reject the pluralistic, diverse idea of the Founders in favor of something they explicitly opposed: an autocracy with a state-ordained religion.

And many of the most prominent Founders were slaveowners. The modern GOP is not even as enlightened as a bunch of guys who literally owned other human beings.

So, as televised impeachment begin and the resistance enters a new and dramatic phase, let’s assert our ownership of that. Love of country and commitment to the principles on which it was founded does not belong to Lindsey Graham, or Mitch McConnell, or Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz and Devin Nunes, or Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway, or Fox News and Breitbart, and it certainly does not belong to Donald J. Trump.

It belongs to us.

So all I wanna say is:

Play “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

********

Casablanca (1942), directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis, written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, cinematography by Arthur Edeson. A Warner Brothers production. Special shout-out to my friend Gregory Orr, whose mother Joy Page played Annina Brandel, the Bulgarian refugee who, with her husband, seeks Bogart’s help in escaping Casablanca near the top of the movie.

 

 

 

Of Nightmares and Strategy (Part 2)

Clausewitz

Last week I described the nightmare that haunts many of us who oppose Trump:

The Democrats present their case for impeachment, well or badly (the nightmare is actually worse if it’s the former); Trump is acquitted because of the cowardice, venality, and utter lack of respect for the rule of law among the Republican majority in the Senate; he then falsely declares Mueller report-style “total and complete exoneration;” and subsequently coasts to electoral victory in November 2020, having once again cheated political death in one of the biggest scandals in American history. (He would actually hold both of the top two spots on that chart. Impressive.)

It’s a damned scary dream and all the scarier for being perfectly plausible. (Also, in the dream I’m naked in public, haven’t studied for the SATs, and all my teeth fall out.)

So how do we make sure it doesn’t happen?

As I teased last week, I think the answer is in the way impeachment is prosecuted. Not because I expect it to succeed and result in a conviction in the Senate (though hope springs eternal), but because the very process will have a decisive effect on the 2020 election, which remains the most likely method by which Trump will be removed from office (with a Secret Service agent pulling on each of his legs as he clings by his fingernails to the front door jamb of the White House). For at their core, impeachment and the election are one in the same, or at the very least, two mutually supporting campaigns with the same strategic objective.

Hence my decision to illustrate this week’s essay with a portrait of the famous 19th century Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz, who along with Sun Tzu—as every military professional knows—is probably the foremost strategic theorist in human history. (Duh.)

You probably have his masterpiece Vom Kriege on audiobook.

PROFILES IN COWARDICE

Both impeachment and the ballot box are primarily public relations campaigns. They differ only in the size and location of the audience.

The former is focused on a very small subset of that public, the 100 members of the US Senate, though broader public opinion undoubtedly bears on how those Senators think. Anticipating that things will break strictly along party lines, 45 Democrats and two independents are almost certain to vote to convict Trump, meaning 20 Republicans would have to break ranks to reach the two-thirds threshold needed to actually throw his fat ass out of office.

The conventional wisdom is that that will never happen, and it’s probably right.

How likely are defections? Former White House communications director (yes, eleven days count) Anthony Scaramucci predicts that if and when the polls hit 60% in favor of impeachment and removal the GOP will turn on Trump. I’ll leave it to you to decide how much faith you wanna put in the Mooch.

Maybe none of them cross the aisle. Maybe a few, er, mavericks defy the capo di tutti i capi and do so: Romney, Murkowski, Collins (cough cough), maybe Sasse, or Portman, or Gardner, and perhaps a couple others. But certainly not twenty.

But that’s from the perspective of November 11, 2019; how things will look a few weeks from now is anyone’s guess. It’s worth remembering that the whole Ukrainegate scandal only broke six weeks ago, and witness how fast it has moved, and public opinion with it. Every dawn brings appalling new revelations that are harder and harder for the White House and its myrmidons to defend (though they’re damn creative—and brazen—in trying). It’s hard to imagine what turns of events would finally cause Republicans to abandon their Dear Leader, considering all the horrors that thus far have not. But although conviction and removal remain a longshot, I would not bet the farm on where we’ll be by the time the cherry blossoms bloom in Washington.

Until this very week Republicans have been busy howling for transparency from their Democratic colleagues, even though plenty of Republicans have been present for all the proceedings (sorry, Matt Gaetz) and have had ample opportunity to grill the witnesses to their black hearts’ content. The Democrats have now called their bluff, formalizing the impeachment inquiry, releasing the first batch of transcripts, and preparing to begin public hearings.…..so the GOP should be happy, right?

Hardly. As I predicted last week—though it didn’t require the skills of a Nostradamus or even a Kreskin to do so—all that has done is confirm the worst possible news for the GOP. As David Graham writes in the Atlantic:

The Intelligence Committee has so far released four transcripts—interviews with Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, former State Department Senior Adviser Michael McKinley, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, and Ambassador Kurt Volker…. (The transcripts have) both closely tracked the leaks that have already emerged and deepened the president’s jeopardy. Sondland’s testimony, including an addendum he submitted after being contradicted by later witnesses, confirms that he told Ukrainian officials that the U.S. would not provide military aid until Kiev published a public statement citing Burisma and the 2016 U.S. election. That, along with other documents released yesterday, confirms that the president not only demanded a quid pro quo, but demanded a corrupt one.

In other words, as Graham put it, “The more we learn the worse it looks for Trump.” And things do not promise to get better when witnesses began appearing in public session next week, beginning with Ambassador Bill Taylor—playing Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, if Mr. Smith were a West Point grad and combat veteran of Vietnam with 30 years of noble service in the US diplomatic corps.

This then is a textbook case of “be careful what you wish for,” though of course the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, only a stalling tactic and effort at misdirection. But its utility is at an end. (To that same point, the transcripts also revealed that the House Republicans have mostly used their own time with the witnesses on batshit conspiracy theories and other tangential antics, showing that the counterarguments they have made in private are no more solid than the ones they have made in public.)

Gordon Sondland’s reversal of his Congressional testimony in particular—“Oh, THAT quid pro quo”—obliterated the GOP denial that there was any extortion going on with Ukraine, even though (my record player is broken, Joe Biden!) the presence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant to the illegality and impeachability of what Trump did. Nevertheless, it’s another disingenuous GOP talking point blown to smithereens. That quid pro quo has also been confirmed by others, including Taylor, Vindman, Morrison, Mulvaney, and even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis). Graham again:

(The White House statement distancing the president from the quid pro quo) is steeped in Orwellian irony. Trump wanted Ukraine to pursue these investigations in order to further his chances at reelection in 2020. The Ukrainian government was having its arm twisted into giving a statement swearing to stop interference in US elections—even as the statement was itself coerced interference in US elections.

By the by, I am cheered that many people are turning against the prissy Latin term altogether, which doesn’t fully capture the criminality in question, and begun calling this what it is: bribery, or, if you prefer, blackmail, which is nothing but bribery’s equally illegal inverse.

LENINGRAD LINDSEY

As the evidence continues to mount, Republicans will be put in an ever more precarious position, one that will test even their oft-demonstrated capacity for kowtowing to His Royal Highness, and nowhere is that dilemma is better exemplified in the man from South Carolina. (I’m using the term “man” loosely.)

Only a few weeks ago, when the scandal first broke, Lindsey Graham tried to dismiss its seriousness, but noted that if a quid pro quo were shown, that would be a different matter and he would support impeachment. Those exact conditions were confirmed last week by Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland. And yet now from Lindsey, crickets.

The closest he came, echoing a Kellyanne Conway talking point, was the disingenuous claim that withholding US aid to Kiev didn’t matter because Ukraine eventually “got the money.” Which is like saying kidnapping isn’t a crime if you get your baby back after paying the ransom. As Salon reports, “(Senator Graham) did not mention that the aid was released after months of pressure from members of Trump’s own party and administration to release the aid, which was appropriated by Congress.” More to the point, at its core, it’s also a tacit admission that bribery was indeed in play, and that his self-stated criterion for impeachment has been met.

Thundering like an Old Testament prophet with a suspiciously Southern accent, Graham also was among those demanding the transcripts of House testimony. Now that the Democrats have released such transcripts, he has bluntly refused to read them. Most recently, he has argued that the Trump administration is simply too incompetent to have successfully blackmailed Ukraine.

Those goalposts are proving very mobile indeed.

As Lindsey demonstrates, the Republican defense of Trump grows ever more absurd. I would call it unsustainable, except that we have already seen that there appears to be no low to which the GOP will not sink in that regard. So I am not optimistic that 20 Republican Senators will suddenly grown spines, regardless of what further evidence emerges.

Former US Naval Academy professor Tom Nichols puts it well:

The House Republicans have clearly decided to throw themselves on the pyre of Donald Trump’s burning presidency. The last act of this tragedy—and impeachment, no matter how it turns out, is a national tragedy—will be when Senate Republicans meekly submit to the will of Donald Trump and acquit him, like terrified jurors under the glaring eye of a Mafia boss who knows their names.

Nichols is echoed by Tim Alberta , author of American Carnage, who recently wrote in a Politico cover story based on dozens of recent interviews with GOP lawmakers, congressional aides and White House staffers:

There is a sizable number of Republican senators and representatives who believe Trump’s actions are at least theoretically impeachable, who believe a thorough fact-finding mission is necessary, who believe his removal from office is not an altogether radical idea.

But it’s also evident that, barring a plain admission of guilt by the president himself—think Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men—the Republican Party will not be forsaking Trump. He could lose a stray vote in the House, maybe even two, when articles of impeachment come to the floor. He could fare even worse in the Senate, knowing that more than a few of the 53 Republican jurors might be tempted etch their names in the history books at his expense. None of this will alter his standing atop the party; none of this will change the fact that he is president through January 2021 and perhaps beyond.

WHO’S AFRAID OF THE BIG “I” (REDUX)

So let’s set aside the unlikely possibility of conviction and operate under the probable assumption that Trump will be acquitted. Since we know that going in, the chief goal of impeachment then becomes to damage Trump enough politically to weaken him in the general election.

The two are connected, of course, in a symbiosis that flows both ways.

Just as public opinion about Trump’s unfitness for office weighs on the decision-making of the Senatorial jurors, the impeachment process itself—from the initial inquiry we are watching now, all the way through the trial in the Senate—will inevitably influence broader public opinion, which will make its voice known next November. The jury therefore is not really a hundred senators; it’s the 250 million Americans who are eligible to vote and who will watch the prosecution make its case, much of it live on national television.

In my nightmare scenario, Trump waves his acquittal in the Senate like a giant Confederate battle flag flying from the back of a Ford F-150 with a horn that plays “Dixie” and cruises to re-election like nothing ever happened. If anything, impeachment only strengthens his standing with the public. That is certainly the wishful thinking within the GOP, and what it tried desperately to scare Democrats with by way of forestalling impeachment over previous sins, before Ukrainegate made it inevitable.

Except I don’t think impeachment will strengthen Trump or his public standing. Very much the contrary.

Even absent an acquittal, Trump’s impeachment— if properly conducted—will in fact be a knife in the chunk of coal where his heart should be, leaving him fatally wounded going into the 2020 presidential campaign. I have said that over and over. It is not only a matter of principle for the House to impeach him in defense of the rule of law, and to avoid lowering the bar for abuse of power by future presidents (or dictators, or whatever we will have if Trump is not held to account), but a matter of practicality as well.

The events of the past six weeks have borne my argument out.

Since the impeachment inquiry was announced, support for Trump has suffered, with a majority of Americans now in favor not just of impeachment but of actual removal. That is an astonishing statistic. So it would seem that the dire Bre’r Rabbit-style warnings by the GOP that such an effort would backfire on Democrats—and the hand-wringing among many Democrats themselves on that front—were wildly wrong.

It’s true that the numbers are predictably polarized along party lines, and that his support within the Republican Party remains shockingly strong. But those hardcore Trump supporters are never going to be moved (more on that in a moment). The crucial metric is that the public at large is turning decisively against him, including that small sliver in the middle who can make all the difference in 2020. That trend looks to continue if impeachment is prosecuted in a careful, professional, and savvy manner, which is exactly Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff seem to be doing, despite the hyperventilating predictions of sky-falling and red-faced allusions to Stalinist Russia by the GOP (bad analogy, guys),

Last week’s elections further suggest that impeachment is not hurting the blue team one little bit—again, very much the contrary, with a stunning upset in the Kentucky governor’s race and Democrats taking control of both houses of the Virginia state legislature of the first time in a quarter century. EJ Dionne writing in the Washington Post:

Tuesday’s elections were terrible for Republicans. Their only major victory came in Mississippi, where they held onto the governorship in the face of a spirited Democratic challenge. But face it: The day Mississippi falls out of the Republican base is the moment when the party goes the way of the Whigs….

Trump’s failure to rally Republicans with his anti-impeachment message in Kentucky—a state the president carried by 30 points and that is home to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), up for reelection next year—should give Republicans pause about a Trump-centric approach to their own political futures.

As Dionne suggests, there might even be signs that Trump’s senatorial firewall is not as secure as once thought. Alberta again:

Nobody on Capitol Hill believes the number of GOP mutineers could even remotely approach the 20 needed to convict Trump in a Senate trial. All the same, there is a recognition among the president’s allies that his reelection campaign, not to mention his place in history, could be crippled by even the smallest clique of Republicans banding together and issuing what would be an institution-defining rebuke.

Thus even acquittal in the Senate might hurt the GOP in the presidential race, if the case against Trump is made so well that votes to protect him are seen as brazen cowardice and power-grabbing by the Republican Party. Even if the White House manages to maintain total obedience and not lose a single GOP senator, perhaps through massive bribery (look for Mitt Romney to become Secretary of State), the sight of Senate Republicans voting en masse to make like the three monkeys and excuse massive, brazen, Constitution-shredding corruption is not a great look going into an election.

WHOA WHOA WHOA

Now wait a minute, I hear you saying. Isn’t this exactly the accusation that huffy Republicans are always slinging at the “resistance”—that we have been looking for a reason, any reason, to impeach their hero since the day he was elected?

In a way, yes. It’s just that we didn’t have to look very hard to find one.

I understand that framing impeachment and the election as part of the same effort to unseat Trump makes impeachment look partisan, rather than the proper application of Congressional oversight that it is. But I don’t accept that that overlap is necessarily damning, or renders the effort illegitimate.

Donald Trump is wantonly unfit to be a lunchroom monitor, much less have possession of the nuclear codes, so seeking his eviction from the White House is a reasonable and prudent goal for anyone conscious enough to recognize that. Whether that ejection comes through the ballot box or impeachment (or through the 25th Amendment, a very dark horse in this race) matters not. All are perfectly legal and reasonable mechanisms designed to end a failed or dangerous presidency, and his has earned both distinctions. As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega puts it: “In many ways, Donald Trump is the nightmare scenario that the Framers designed the Constitution to protect against.”

So try to wrap your collective heads around this Zen koan:

If Trump had not behaved in an impeachable manner, we would have opposed him on policy grounds, as we have done and continue to do. But it was quite obvious from even a cursory look at his entire miserable life that there was no way that he wasn’t going to do something egregiously worthy of getting himself chucked out of office. And he didn’t disappoint. So I don’t find the “poised to impeach” critique very convincing. It’s also rich coming from a party that was anxious to impeach Barack Obama from the moment he raised his right hand. Unfortunately for the GOP, he didn’t commit crimes as readily as he breathed, unlike his successor.

Partisanship ceases to be an issue—or, arguably, even exist at all in the ordinary sense of the word—when we are no longer talking about two reasonable political parties whose differences are still within the realm of normal political discourse. Segregation used to be a partisan issue, albeit one that crossed party lines. So was slavery. Trump is an abomination, as it the party that he leads, and in no way just another ordinary political entity operating under the usual rules of engagement.

In the words of the eloquent Mr. DeVega, “Like its leader, the present-day Republican Party represents an existential threat to American democracy.”

TRIBALISM UBER ALLES

In an interview last week, the recently resurfaced Never Trump pundit Steve Schmidt (welcome back Steve!), commented that the Democrats will indeed be haunted by what he calls “substantial evidence of political malice toward him that could be exploited during this process argument.” (A witchunt, some might say.) But he didn’t say it would doom them. Schmidt suggests that “Democrats are going to have to offset this with a truth-based, fact-based, reality-based approach.” I couldn’t agree more, although it goes without saying that an appeal to the facts has had exactly zero impact on many Republicans over the past four years.

But we are not concerned with those people, only those with functioning cerebral cortexes. The evidence against Trump is already mountainous and we’re just getting to see the real heart of it. If the argument is made properly, only the most brain dead MAGA zombies will be left defending him. Whether that is enough for him to win in November remains to be seen.

Which brings us to the role of sheer tribalism.

How drunk on Kool-Aid are Trump’s hardcore supporters? This drunk: according to a new Monmouth University poll, 62 percent of people who approve of Trump report that there is NOTHING he could do that would make them turn against him.

Let that sink in a moment. (And we’ll suspend Godwin’s Law temporarily while we absorb a new comprehension of how the train to Belsen came to be.)

Notwithstanding Russian mucking about, propaganda, ratfucking, and possibly even actual vote tampering, 62 million Americans did vote for Trump in 2016. That’s three million fewer than Hillary (I feel compelled to remind us all every time this comes up), but still an appallingly high number. Even now, after three years of this daily shitshow, a shockingly large segment of American voters still buy Trump brand snake oil, and turn a blind eye to Republican hypocrisy, lies, and criminality, finding ever new and groundbreaking ways to forgive and even applaud the most unconscionable behavior. (Betraying the Kurds, anyone? Opening the floodgates for corporate pollution of our air and water and land? Robbing the poor and giving to the rich? Kidnapping and caging children in concentration camps?)

We know that the theater of nationally televised hearings helped sway public opinion massively during Watergate. But that was in the era of the Big Three, plus PBS (and a random UHF channel in each market); we shall see what kind of impact they have now, in the age of the Internet, social media, and a bazillion cable channels. It has become a cliché to say that Nixon might have survived had he had a Fox News on his side, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. The next few months will put that theory to the test.

I’ll go to DeVega again:

A healthy democracy requires a shared sense of empirical reality and a societal ability to discern truth from lies. Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party and the right-wing news media reject those basic principles. 

That sheer fact makes the blindly obedient Trumpist GOP both an especially challenging foe, and one whose defeat is all the more crucial and urgent for that very reason. So it is with fanatics.

Absent any credible defense, Trump and his supporters are reduced to denying demonstrable reality, engaging in shameless character assassination of witnesses against him, trafficking in lies, and generally screaming themselves red in the face that the impeachment is all a satanic plot by godless, chablis-sipping liberals who hate America.

But writing in the New Yorker, Susan Glasser seems to give serious consideration to the notion that these tactics will work, despite their blatant dishonesty and cynicism:

For Trump and his defenders, it is a coup, a show trial, a witch hunt. When that is the starting point, there is no place for the facts, no process that can satisfy, no way to split the difference.

(F)or his most fervent supporters (and that apparently includes virtually all of the Republican elected officials in both the House and the Senate)….(t)here is no evidence, no testimony, no revelatory text message, that can sway them. There is a justification for anything that has come out, and for anything that might still be revealed. Trump has framed the impeachment case, as with all the other challenges to his controversial actions over the past few years, as a purely partisan matter of loyalty and legitimacy.

 HE HAS MET THE ENEMY, AND IT ARE HIM

Of course, another wild card in the process is Trump himself and his toddler-like tendency to freak out and make things worse on himself. That variable has the power to change things dramatically, both in terms of the election, and of general outcry for impeachment that might sway otherwise sniveling Republican senators to support it.

Remember when people were saying, “Trump wants to be impeached—he’d love it!” Turn out, not so much. Again belying Republican Bre’r Rabbitism, Trump knows that impeachment will hurt him severely, even if he survives in the Senate. It’s the blackest mark possible on a presidency, and it will change minds heading into November, as the numbers are already showing.

The irony is that Trump is making it worse on himself with his erratic behavior, which only figures to get worse as the noose tightens. As Tim Alberta wrote further in Politico: “Trump cannot stand to be embarrassed—and there is no greater embarrassment to a president than being impeached, much less with the abetting of his own tribe.” An impeachment inquiry that might otherwise result in acquittal could turn into a conviction if Trump goes further into cornered rat mode and does something truly self-destructive.

Think he won’t? Here’s Peter Nicholas in The Atlantic:

Trump’s behavior in office was never all that even-keeled. But under the pressure of an impeachment inquiry, he appears more aggrieved, as I wrote last month. “He was never completely hinged,” another former White House official told me. “The trip from where he was to unhinged, as he is now—that was not a long trip.” 

For example, we learned last week that part of what Trump wanted from the Zelensky government was an announcement that it was looking into—no joke—Hillary Clinton. Somebody should tell Donald that the 2016 election is over and he won.

Wouldn’t it be sweet if Trump’s Ahab-like obsession with Hillary is part of what ultimately brings him down?

ON STRATEGERY (WITH APOLOGIES TO HARRY SUMMERS AND WILL FERRELL)

So, in my humble opinion, here are a few of the things we need to do in order to mount the most ironclad, convincing impeachment prosecution possible, and simultaneously the best presidential campaign we possibly can, and make them work in tandem.

In Congress, we have to make the case against Trump so powerfully that any Republican who still votes to acquit will do so under the crushing pressure of public embarrassment at their toadying partisanship, willful blindness to the evidence, and blatant violation of their oath office to defend the Constitution.

We have to make that case cogently and with a minimum of partisan rancor. (I know: physician, heal thyself.)

We have to present a positive alternative to Trump in the presidential campaign, led by a strong candidate with a serious plan to address the real issues that matter to our country and our countrymen. (Though to me, even a tree stump would be preferable to Donald.)

We need to worry less about antagonizing the other side (news flash: they’re already at max antagonism) and more about energizing our side. Will impeachment backfire with some members of the public, and actually draw them closer to Trump? Yes, but only with those who were a lost cause from the start.

As for trying to woo that tiny sliver of what Cambridge Analytics called “the persuadables,” we have to distinguish between those voters at whom we have a realistic shot, and those who are so low-information that it’s not worth the opportunity cost. (NB: How anyone can be “undecided” about Trump at this point is beyond me. So I admit that I’m likely part of the problem when it comes to reaching across the aisle.) To that end, we need to make an appeal to reason aimed at blue collar white women, who are among Trump’s staunchest defenders, with whom Democrats made inroads in the 2018 midterms, but appear to be slipping again. We need to mobilize the African-American vote, and the Latinx vote, and drive young people to the polls, beating back the apathy that Republicans do so much to seed and naturally benefit from.

Speaking of Cambridge Analytica, we need to fight the fake news with the truth, and keep the traditional media from repeating its mistakes of false equivalence in which it trafficked so grievously in 2016. Russian disinformation (and Chinese, and Iranian, and Saudi, to name just a few) is dangerous enough, to say nothing of the homegrown American variety. That tsunami of disinformation will be only one aspect of even more foreign attempts at meddling than last time, which the Republicans are happy to allow and abet, to include outright vote tampering. The plutocratic GOP also has a war chest that dwarfs that of the Democrats, and—I’m told—a far superior trove of data and a willingness to exploit it as black propaganda. (See The Great Hack.) It is also openly determined to suppress the vote through the lie of “voter fraud” functioning as a cover for Jim Crow-like disenfranchisement.

So our task is formidable.

We may fail and end up with four more years of this monster. If so, I shudder to think what the shredded corpse of American democracy will look like by the summer of 2023.

For the flip side of Trump’s impulsiveness and self-destructiveness is his astonishing capacity for Rasputin-like survival, even when besieged by calamities that would doom a less lucky motherfucker, or one with any kind of moral boundaries when it comes to a scorched earth effort at self-preservation. Writing in Salon, Heather Digby Parton addresses this phenomenon, echoing Glasser’s worry. I will quote her at length, because she says it so well, and so terrifyingly:

(F)or all of Trump’s many failings he does have one talent…..he is highly skilled at getting out of trouble. In this case, we can see how he thinks he’s going to do that, because he has already done it once during his presidency.

People underestimate how well the “No collusion, no obstruction” and “Witch hunt!” strategy worked with the Mueller investigation. When Robert Mueller took that job he was considered the single most honorable,  straight-arrow lawman in the nation, and was widely praised by prominent members of both parties. But through sheer repetition, echoed by his media minions, Trump managed to convince millions of people that Mueller, a lifelong Republican, and his team of prosecutors were a bunch of vengeful Democratic hacks out to take him down for partisan reasons. With the help of Attorney General William Barr, that narrative was reinforced upon the release of Mueller’s report, and it solidified the “witch hunt” meme that Trump and his supporters continue to push to this day.

Trump and his henchmen are running the same game with the impeachment inquiry into Ukraine ……The point is to rally their white working-class voters by stoking their rage and resentment, and trying to convince what remains of their white college-educated vote to stay the course. Imagine the feral, frothing-at-the-mouth Lindsey Graham of the Kavanaugh hearings leading the charge, with a smirking Mitch McConnell by his side. Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Tom Cotton will give soaring speeches railing against the Democrats’ illegal crusade to depose the duly elected president, echoing the Trump’s robotic messages once again.

Will it work? Who knows?…..But it’s a mistake to assume that Trump and the Republicans are flailing around without any purpose, and attacking the process for lack of any other options. They’re doing this because it’s worked before, and they figure they might just get away with it again.

DREAM A LITTLE DREAM

The type and scope of Trump’s wrongdoing in Ukrainegate is so blatant, so easily understood, and so egregious—and the evidence so massive, multifaceted, and wide-ranging—that it truly seems like the end of the road. (Much more so than Russiagate and the Mueller probe. And yes, I know they are ultimately related.) That is because in the more or less functioning democracy to which we are all accustomed, it would be a presidency-ending scandal, full stop, period dot, end of sentence.

But we no longer live in that sort of democracy.

It is very possible to imagine that, as crippling and final as this all seems right now, Trump will survive it and even prevail next November. But we cannot give in to fatalism or pessimism. There ought to be enough of us who still have our wits about us and a grasp on civics to get out and overwhelm Trump’s loyalists, first in public opinion and then at the polls. If we can’t, our democracy will be undeniably broken….and if we can but simply won’t, we’ll deserve what we get and have no one to blame but ourselves.

So by way of closing, let’s return to the nightmare that kicked all this off: impeachment, acquittal, false claims of exoneration, followed by re-election. 

You know that thing where you say you worst fears out loud, operating under the superstitious belief that that means they won’t come true? (It’s the flip side of not saying your wildest dreams out loud for the same reason.) Well, I’m not a very superstitious person, but maybe by articulating my nightmare I’ve done that.

Or, more rationally, maybe by speaking aloud the dangers we face we can collectively raise awareness of them, formulate a counter-strategy, and take control of our own destiny and avert that fate. 

It’s only the republic at stake. Now it’s up to us.

 

Of Nightmares and Strategy

Sinking Statue of Liberty

Here’s my nightmare, and I don’t think I’m the only one who has it.

Congressional Democrats assemble an ironclad case against Donald Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors related to his actions regarding Ukraine, the subsequent coverup, and his obstruction of the investigation into it.

The House votes to impeach, a trial is quickly held in the Senate, and all 45 Senate Democrats and two independents vote to convict. Up to twelve Republicans join them, making for a healthy majority, but short of the two-thirds threshold needed to remove Trump from office. He is therefore acquitted, according to the procedures laid out in the Constitution.

A beaming Trump proclaims “total and complete exoneration,” much as he did after the release (and his distortion) of the special counsel report last March. He then carries on with his re-election campaign unimpeded by the jeopardy of removal by other means. With its long sought dream of impeachment fizzled out, a deflated Democratic opposition is left without much of a game plan and Trump barrels on to re-election the following November.

Then I wake up in a cold sweat with my pulse going at the tempo of a Deadmau5 track.

I know a lot of people have this same nightmare, and rightly so, as it is a very plausible scenario.

Of course, I’ve skipped over a big chunk in between the hypothetical acquittal and re-election, and the assumptions I’ve made about what will happen during that period—principally, Democratic postpartum depression, and an emboldened Trump rather than a fatally wounded one—are by no means certain. The actual way that interval plays out will be driven largely by the impeachment process itself leading into it.

Accordingly, I want to stress that I am not wringing my hands and saying, ”Oh, alas and alack, impeachment is going to hurt us in November!” I have never been among those who felt that way, and I am now more sure in my conviction than ever, having watched the early stages of this process unfold. As I’ve written before, I believe that the impeachment of Donald Trump on principle is an absolute duty that is essential for the long term health of the country, the Constitution, and the rule of law. That was so even before the revelations of Ukrainegate and is doubly so now. (See Reading Mr. Mueller, May 2, 2019.) But I’ve also written that I believe it is a tactically smart move purely in terms of the 2020 election. (See Who’s Afraid of the Big “I”?, May 15, 2019.)

Right now it feels like momentum is on our side, as the avalanche of evidence implicating Trump in impeachable offenses is…..well, avalanche-like. The White House is in a panic unlike any we’ve seen over nearly three years in which it has seemed to be in a constant state of panic. The broader GOP has no counter to that evidence except appallingly dishonest theatrics, misdirection, disinformation, and above all, a shameful attempt to discredit the accusers and witnesses, which is a tall order because there are so many of them and they are of such uniformly high moral and professional caliber. Public sentiment is currently running at about 49% in favor of impeachment and removal—I say again, not just in favor of impeaching him and having a trial in the Senate, but of actual removal. That’s an astonishingly high percentage for this early in the process, dwarfing the numbers Nixon and Clinton faced at this stage in their respective ordeals.

Even so, I’m leery. I dread the thought of going to bed on the night of November 3, 2020 with the screaming CNN graphic TRUMP RE-ELECTED burned into my retinas. I dread looking back on this time as one of misplaced confidence and unfulfilled optimism, followed by crushing disappointment. I dread what America will look like after five more years of this.

Maybe, like many of us, I have PTSD from the infuriating experience of watching the Mueller report despicably spun by Team Trump (mascot: a weasel stuffing rubles into its pockets while sexually assaulting a beauty pageant contestant). When this is all over, will we look back on the special counsel probe and Ukrainegate as twinned events, and slap our collective foreheads over how we let this same bullshit get pulled on us again? As George W. Bush once said, “Fool me once….” (blank stare; moment of panic)….”Can’t get fooled again.” And if we do let that fate befall us, it will be from the perspective of a once-great country that slid into gangster plutocracy, led by a kleptocrat whom we saw fit to put in office not once but twice.

So let us now consider the current state of play and how to avoid that nightmare coming true.

PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

When it comes to Ukraine, every pundit on God’s green earth whose paychecks aren’t signed by Rupert Murdoch has already noted that the GOP cannot plausibly defend Trump’s actions on their merits, so it is reduced to arguing about “process,” which, famously, is what one does when one’s case is weak. The quote of the day, which is getting a workout lately, belongs to Carl Sandburg: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.”

That the rules in this process that Republicans are pig-squealing about are largely the same ones they themselves devised during the Clinton impeachment and Benghazi hearings should not surprise anyone.

The White House’s decision to add Trey Gowdy to its impeachment team highlighted this irony. Gowdy himself addressed it, taking the surprisingly non-hypocritical position that secrecy is warranted in the Ukraine case just as it was with Benghazi…..but then went on to accuse Adam Schiff of the opposite crime, that of being too public with his inquiry. Wow.

But this week Nancy “The Dominatrix” Pelosi called the GOP’s bluff and gave them what they’d been histrionically demanding: an up-or-down vote on moving forward with an impeachment inquiry (even though it is not legally required), as she and the rest of the House leadership laid down the rules by which its public phase will now begin. But of course that didn’t satisfy House Republicans—not that anyone but Candide thought it would. McCarthy, Scalise, Zeldin, Gaetz and the rest of the odious Capitol Hill Gang are now throwing up their hands and crying, “Oh, it’s too late—you can’t put the genie back in the bottle! The whole process is already tainted!” Which I notice was not something they were saying before, when howling for Pelosi to do what she just did. Must have slipped their mind.

So they haven’t just moved the goalposts: they’ve torn down the stadium, built a new one across the river in Jersey, and sold the naming rights to Rosneft.

Despite their best efforts, Republicans are now entering the land of “be careful what you wish for,” as the American people will hear the sordid details of Trump’s behavior, which is not likely to help him. (Not one revelation that has yet come out has.) But of course, the Republican demand for transparency was never genuine, merely a distraction and stalling tactic…..and a measure of the weakness of their case.

Presumably they will continue to make this kind of Kleenex-thin argument as we barrel inexorably toward actual articles of impeachment, but it will have diminishing impact with every passing day. The GOP has no strategy but grandstanding and lies, so get used to it. Eventually, when all the pertinent information has been made public and the American people can see it and judge for themselves, the Republicans’ specious arguments about process will rendered meaningless (members of Kool-Aid Drinkers Anonymous notwithstanding).

LOAN US A QUID

Notice, also, how you don’t hear Republicans arguing much anymore that there was no quid pro quo? That’s because it’s now apparent to everyone except Sean Hannity that there was a fucking quid pro quo, one the size of the Hoover Dam. Mick Mulvaney bragged about it at a press conference, as a matter of fact, apparently test driving the Nathan Jessup “Hell yes, I ordered the Code Red!” approach, having failed to notice that at the end of that movie Jessup gets frogmarched out of court in handcuffs.

Accordingly, new reporting tells us that a number of GOP senators are now moving toward a defense that admits the quid pro quo—since it can’t believably be denied at this point—but argues that there wasn’t “corrupt intent.”

A few problems with that one, boys.

As we all know from dealing with this exact issue during two years of the Mueller probe, just soliciting foreign interference in a US election is illegal, and the presence or absence of a quid pro quo is irrelevant. (But I’ll be a broken record in repeating it, because the GOP is very keen to make us to forget it as it seeks to muddy the waters.)

The illegality of seeking foreign interference is the one thing we all agree on, Democrat and Republican alike, or at least I thought we did. In that earlier scandal, not even Trump—initially—claimed it was OK, only that he hadn’t done it. (“No collusion!”) But in Ukrainegate, he has openly admitted soliciting such help, even if he didn’t realize it, with the rough Zelensky readout, had his chief of staff brag about it on national TV, and then did it again in real time in front of a group of reporters right on the White House lawn.

As Scott Matthews says, after two years of the special counsel investigation, Trump has no grounds on which to claim that he didn’t know this is illegal behavior. It was pretty disingenuous the first time, of course, but there’s really no shrugging of the shoulders and claiming “rookie mistake” this time around. (As they say, ignorance is no excuse, but if it was Donald Trump might permanently excused from everything, in perpetuity.) On the contrary, in fact: it’s clear that the experience of Russiagate did nothing but embolden him, having seen what he could get away with. Please note once again that the crucial July 25 call with Zelensky happened on the day after Robert Mueller’s Congressional testimony that put a period at the end of the special counsel era.

So admitting the quid pro quo is utterly beside the point…..and the “no corrupt intent” defense is especially laughable because, of course, Trump’s intent could not possibly be any more corrupt.

As George Conway tweeted, “The defense that, yeah, there was a quid pro quo but it was innocent and not corrupt here is like saying, yeah, sure @realDonaldTrump robbed the bank, but he thought all the money in it belonged to him and that he was just making a withdrawal.”

(The openly deceitful Republican attempt to conflate impeachment with a criminal trial is another matter, but just for the record, Trump’s actions re Ukraine are not just an abuse of power that constitutes an impeachable high crime, but also a garden variety “crime crime” in the form of a felony campaign finance violation.)

The “corrupt intent” defense is especially hard to make because Trump himself refuses to cooperate with his own party in this ploy (or even in the fight over process, which, ironically, he mostly disdains). In fact, very much on the contrary, he continues to insist that blackmailing Kiev to smear Joe Biden was not illegal, not impeachable, and in fact right and proper conduct that he was duty-bound to carry out! He wasn’t soliciting foreign interference in an election: he was pursuing an honorable anti-corruption agenda against those crooked Delawareans! He was carrying out foreign policy in the standard way, using the power of the USA to compel foreign powers to do what is best for American interests!

“No corrupt intent” is itself a variation on Mulvaney’s Scaliaesque “Get over it” claim, which wants you to believe either that White House pressure on Kiev wasn’t in the service of Trump’s personal interests, or that it was, but that’s business as usual and we do it all the time. (Take your pick; Mick doesn’t really care.) Ultimately, all the GOP’s defenses circle back on one other as equally disingenuous repackagings of previous excuses, all of them non-starters.

It goes without saying that this argument that doesn’t fly, trying as it does to blithely pass off personal corruption as matters of state. We do not do this sort of thing all the time, and no credible foreign policy official thinks we do, not even Republican ones. What we do is leverage foreign powers for THE NATIONAL INTEREST….not for the president’s personal gain, not to smear his rivals in an election, not to soothe his ego and discredit the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russia mucked about in the 2016 election. As former GOP strategist Steve Schmidt recently put it, “That’s as un-American an action and as contrary to the constitutional requirements of the office as have ever played out.”

Republicans love to bring up Obama’s hot mike moment with Medvedev in 2012. But they shouldn’t, as it is a perfect demonstration of the crucial difference in question. Notice that Obama was talking about achieving legitimate US foreign policy aims, not “Hey, get me some dirt on Tagg Romney if you want the US to play ball.” The idea that this is business as usual is so wrong-headed and cynically dishonest it’s hard to fathom….and we all know that the GOP would never tolerate it from a Democrat. It’s instructive to remember that in 2012, Republicans set their collective hair plugs on fire over Obama’s action. Yet now they want to shrug and defend Trump’s infinitely more extreme, wide-ranging, and criminally self-serving actions in a similar realm?

Of course they do.

Good luck with that: if it works, I presume the GOP will next be putting the Brooklyn Bridge on eBay.

Obviously, MAGA Nation will have no problem swallowing any horseshit Trump or his defenders put out, but—speaking of bridges—the “no corrupt intent” argument is likely to be a bridge too far for most sentient Americans. Can McConnell & Co. get Trump to abandon this farce and do a mea culpa for his own strategic good? Probably not. Can they still successfully make this argument even if Trump undermines them by continuing to pursue his trademark, Roy Cohn-style, Russiagate-tested strategy of denying what everyone can plainly see with their own eyes? Maybe. If the past four years have taught us anything, it’s that what in the old days would have seemed rational and reasonable to nearly all is no longer operative.

STILL A FEW BUGS IN THE SYSTEM

As many savvy political observers have already predicted, as more and more evidence comes out, the goalposts will move again and Republicans will eventually be left with only one argument: “Sure, Trump did it, and there was a quid pro quo, and it was with corrupt intent, but it doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offense.”

This is an understandable tactic for a bunch of guys without any better options, wanton disregard for the truth, the public good, and the health of the republic notwithstanding. In fact, that line of argument has already begun. But that’s gonna be a hard sell, too.

Firstly, such a claim flies in the face of a fundamental understanding of the US Constitution and a functional democracy. Abusing the power of the presidency for personal gain, not to mention compromising American sovereignty for the benefit of foreign powers in the process, is the very thing which the Founders most feared, and for which they created impeachment as a remedy. It is also absolutely antithetical to the hardline “national security” ethos on which Republicans have historically—if dishonestly —prided themselves. Senate Republicans can’t with a straight face say that’s OK, or naughty but not impeachable. They are already trying, but it’s risible.

At the risk of trafficking in what has become a tedious trope, imagine if Obama…..yada yada yada.

Secondly, the surreptitious nature of the entire attempt to extort Ukraine—from the use of a non-governmental emissary like Giuliani, to the circumventing of normal State Department channels, to the compartmentalization of incriminating documents on a secure server—betrays the White House’s own recognition that what Trump was doing was outrageous. (Paging John Eisenberg.) Not really the behavior of people who thought it was no big deal.

In short, everyone but Donald Trump himself knew this was totally illegal even as they were doing it.

Thirdly, regardless of the underlying high crime, there is also the question of obstruction, which is wanton, and will surely be one of the articles of impeachment. Constitutional law scholar and Harvard professor Laurence Tribe writes: “I know of no instance when a president subject to a serious impeachment effort, whether Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, has essentially tried to lower the curtain entirely—treating the whole impeachment process as illegitimate, deriding it as a ‘lynching’ and calling it a ‘kangaroo court.”

When it comes to claiming, “What he did wasn’t so bad,” Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham, to name just two prominent Republican senators, are especially burdened with crippling evidence that will make it hard to say that. (Not that a little thing like “shameless hypocrisy” would stop either of these ass-clowns or any other Republican for a hot minute.)

In January 1999, on the floor of the Senate during the Clinton impeachment trial, a high-and-mighty Leningrad Lindsey famously said:

You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bunds in your role. Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.

(And it’s on video, if you wanna see him say it.)

Is he now really gonna argue that Trump’s actions don’t even rise to that level, that of dishonoring the integrity of the office? (Hell, if that’s the standard I’m not sure if there’s anything Trump has done since raising his hand on January 21, 2017 that didn’t disgrace the office.)

Moscow Mitch’s history is even more burdensome. In a closed door Senate hearing on February 12, 1999, McConnell held Bill Clinton to a pretty high standard in a speech that ran to more than 4000 words:

Time after time, the President came to a fork in the road. Time after time, he had the opportunity to choose the noble and honorable path. Time after time, he chose the path of lies and lawlessness—for the simple reason that he did not want to endanger his hold on public office.

The President would seek to win at any cost. If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. The name of the game was winning. Winning at any cost.

According to Newsweek, “In a ‘cold’ and ‘calculated’ decision, McConnell said Clinton had given up the chance to ‘tell the truth,’ choosing to ‘cling to public office and deny, delay and obstruct’ instead…… (McConnell repeatedly admonished) Clinton for having ‘looked 270 million Americans in the eye’ and having ‘lied—deliberately and methodically.’”

From his statement again:

He took an oath to faithfully execute the laws of this nation, and he violated that oath. He pledged to be the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, and he violated that pledge. He took an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and he willfully and repeatedly violated that oath.

I think that the United States Senate has a clear choice. Do we want to retain President Clinton in office, or do we want to retain our honor, our principle, and our moral authority? For me, and for many members in my impeachment-fatigued party, I choose honor.

Choke on it, Mitch.

It’s true that in 1999 Democrats made a similar argument, that what Clinton did was wrong but not impeachable. (That was the origin of MoveOn.org. “Censure and move on.”) But that is the very point: they were overruled. The GOP prevailed and impeached him, even if they didn’t win a conviction. (If anything, these days, in the #MeToo era, the case for impeaching Clinton would be even stronger.) So it’s hard now for Republicans to argue that Trump’s far worse actions don’t rise to that standard of seriousness, although they are damn sure trying.

Which brings us back to Donald himself.

A PERFECT TEN

If the GOP endgame will be to admit Trump’s crimes but argue that they don’t merit impeachment, their argument is already flimsy as a cardboard life raft. Even so, they might succeed in selling this to a gullible enough segment of the American people, but for one pesky detail:

Trump himself has not only shown no remorse or even acknowledgement that his behavior was wrong, per above, but has given every indication that he will do it again. Hell, he has done it again, on live on television on the White House lawn even as this story was first breaking. It is now clear that Trump’s Houdini-like escape from accountability for his actions regarding Russia led to Ukrainegate in the first place, and excusing his actions regarding Ukraine would only invite further abuses in the future, and worse.

In New York magazine, Jonathan Chait—among the most eloquent and insightful critics of Trump out there—argues that it’s very likely that, for all we know, Trump and his minions are STILL engaging in this kind of behavior, perhaps on an even greater and more dangerous scale, and with higher stakes, even as we speak:

(Trump) has openly asked China to investigate the Biden family, while members of his administration keep refusing to deny that they are, right at this moment, incorporating such requests into their negotiations with Beijing. Trump has made it perfectly clear that any foreign country that announces investigations into his domestic enemies will be rewarded with diplomatic favor. Trump’s extraordinary distortion of American foreign policy for political gain is not a one-time offense that he’s learned from and won’t repeat. It is a credo, and an ongoing method.

No doubt Trump’s behavior is deeply frustrating for sober Republican strategists who are well aware that he is his own worst enemy when it comes to public relations. On that count he is truly an astonishing figure.

On the one hand, he’s a jawdroppingly great salesman (or should I say con man) on the order of PT Barnum, given the shit-rotten bills of goods he has gotten away with peddling throughout his career, from real estate to casinos to the USFL to mail order steaks to vodka to Chinese-made neckties to “university” educations to the image of himself as a self-made tycoon on a reality TV show when he was really a debt-ridden, serial-welshing, silver spoon baby who torpedoed every venture he ever touched. As the capper, of course, he conned millions of Americans into voting for him, made them believe that he isn’t a stooge of the Kremlin (despite 448 pages of evidence), and even now manages to convince them that they ought to continue to support him even as he publicly wipes his big white ass with the Stars and Stripes.

But on the other hand, he is a terrible salesman, one who consistently shoots himself in the brogan. Witness his unsolicited admission to Lester Holt that he fired Jim Comey over the Russia probe (to say nothing of having fired Comey in the first place), his boast to George Stephanopoulos that he’d collude with foreign powers again, or his voluntary (eager, even) release of the rough readout of the “perfect” Zelensky call, which he inexplicably continues to wave as it if it’s an alibi instead of a smoking gun.

So I am shocked to see that on this point Trump and I agree: this isn’t really about process, and that isn’t the battleground on which we should be fighting. The grounds that Trump wants to fight on—and I do too—are his angry contention, per above: “I did nothing wrong!”

I am not among those who think this is twelve dimensional chess or some sort of genius form of political jiujutsu where Trump “says the quiet part loud” and boldly deflects allegations of wrongdoing by actually boasting about it. (“How could it be wrong if he admits it so proudly?”) I think he genuinely didn’t think it was wrong and still doesn’t. Which means he’s either a psychopath, otherwise mentally impaired, or just absolutely stupid when it comes understanding to the letter of the law. But either way he shouldn’t be president.

For Senate Republicans to make the “no big deal” argument they will have to ignore the unavoidable fact that Ukraine was not a one-off slip-up but the very core operating philosophy of the megalomaniacal 73 year-old meatsack that is unaccountably our fearless leader.

Essentially, Trump’s argument is, “I’m a king who can do whatever I want. The interests of the state and my interests are one in the same. Patriotism means the defeat of my enemies; those who oppose me are traitors who should be shot. L’etat c’est moi.” (My rhetorical Trump speaks French.) Needless to say, that is an indefensible position incompatible with democracy by any definition. But no matter how they try to cloak it, it is the position that the Grand Old Party is going to be forced to make.

********

Next week, in part two of this essay, we’ll examine how impeachment can work to keep the nightmare of Trump’s re-election from happening. Hint: Impeachment and the election are really one…..

Shallow State

Shallow State

I’ve written elsewhere about the unhealthy overvalorzation of the military in the United States. It’s a phenomenon that began in earnest with the 1991 Gulf War as a kind of belated, guilt-ridden collective penance for the unforgivable treatment of the Vietnam-era GI, and has since become a permanent part of American culture. In fact, it’s only gotten worse over the past 28 years, as the chasm has widened ever further between the tiny sliver of brave Americans who fight our (now endless) wars and the vast majority of the citizenry who benefit from that sacrifice while being asked to make little to none of their own.

The rough contours of what is unhealthy about this dynamic—both for the military and for the public—are easy to understand, even if its implications are far-reaching and complex. Way back in October 2017—four hundred years ago—no less an eminence than John Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general and the Secretary of Homeland Security at the time, put on a disgraceful master class in it when the White House trotted him out to defend the misbegotten combat patrol in Niger that killed Army Sergeant La David Johnson. (Kelly went full Nathan Jessup, sneering at the softness of the assembled civilians, and then restricted questions to those reporters who had a first person connection to a Gold Star family, with the press meekly going along. Kelly’s huffing outrage was highly ironic, given his boss’s appalling and repeated attacks on one such family, that of fallen US Army Captain Humayun Khan, who was killed in Iraq in 2004.)

But as the old maxim goes, only those within a family are allowed to criticize it. So as someone with the profession of arms in my marrow, I’m here to tell you that just being a veteran does not make one honorable. In my time in and around the US military I’ve seen the very finest people I’ve ever had the privilege to know, and also some of the worst. No rank, no badge, no diploma, no unit affiliation, no type of service is in and of itself an automatic guarantor of quality or integrity. Shitbirds and cowards come in all ranks and from all branches, just as heroes do. And the past couple weeks have provided the starkest possible example in the form of two points on that spectrum: one represented by the shameful Mike Pompeo, and the other by the courageous Ambassador William Taylor and Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEO

Being a vet may not confer automatic valor, but here’s one thing that a military record does tell me. It tells me that the person in question has been thoroughly instructed in the rules of engagement. Whether that instruction stuck, I can’t say. But I know that that individual has no grounds on which to claim, “I don’t know the rules, or what constitutes my duty, or what I am sworn to defend.”

That is why Mike Pompeo nauseates me almost more than any other member of Donald Trump’s circle, even though there are far more despicable characters to be found there. (Barr, Giuliani, Ross, Miller, Mulvaney, McConnell, Cruz, McCarthy, DeVos, Kushner, Don Jr, Eric, Ivanka…..I could go on.)

But Pompeo offends me more because I know the culture from which he hails, and he knows better.

Mike Pompeo was first in his class at the US Military Academy at West Point. He was just one year group behind me (my own commission was via ROTC), and he and I both served as junior officers in combat arms units in what was then West Germany at the tail end of the Cold War—he in the Armor branch, me in Infantry. Both of us spent about six years on active duty and left as captains in 1991. (Pompeo later went to Harvard Law School, another mucho credentialed institution, association with which is infamously not a guarantor of integrity either. See Alan Dershowitz.)

As I wrote in these pages less than a month ago: “None of those credentials inherently make Pompeo good or bad, but they do make him someone I can understand and relate to, and whose mindset I can understand much better than that of, say, Bill Barr or Rudy Giuliani, and of whom I therefore feel comfortable demanding a higher standard.”

Let’s be clear. I don’t much like Pompeo’s smarmy, evangelical right wing politics. In fact, I don’t like them at all. But that is a difference of policy, about which (once upon a time) reasonable people could disagree. What I am much more offended by, and what I am taking issue with here, is his integrity—or lack thereof—in pursuing those policies.

A shady businessman and venal striver who styles himself a paragon of Christian virtue, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is neck deep in the Trump administration’s corrupt attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into being an arm of the president’s re-election campaign. (Calling it a “shadow foreign policy” is absurdly generous. It’s more like a Mafia shakedown. “Nice country you got here. Shame if something happened to it.”)

It was disgusting to watch Pompeo engage in a lawyerly parsing of his words with Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week,” pretending he knew nothing of the July 25th phone call with Zelensky, only to be forced later to admit that he had himself been on the call. We now know not only that Pompeo listened in, but was an active part of the Giuliani-led team of goons that attempted to strongarm the Ukrainian government into smearing Joe Biden for Donald Trump’s personal political gain: the very definition of presidential abuse of power that the Founders feared and for which they created the mechanism of impeachment.

Since then we have watched Pompeo alternately defending those actions and contending that they didn’t happen (or at least that he didn’t know about them), refusing to comply with lawful Congressional subpoenas, stonewalling, and generally being a good capo in Trump’s Cosa Nostra.

Also from my piece of October 2nd:

When Martha Raddatz bluntly asked Pompeo if he thought it was appropriate for a President of the United States to ask a foreign ally to dig up dirt on a political opponent, Pompeo dodged the question with a classic piece of Trumpian misdirection, criticizing the previous administration (you know, the one led by that black guy) for not providing sufficient military aid to Ukraine…..this even as he knew that the current administration (you know, the one in which he is Secretary of State) had deliberately withheld precisely such aid and for the sole purpose of Trump’s personal gain.

That would all be bad enough in and of itself, but it comes atop a mountain of hypocrisy. As Lara Jakes and David E. Sanger wrote in the New York Times:

As a member of Congress, Mike Pompeo drove the Republican inquiry into the killing of a United States ambassador in Benghazi, Libya, and made clear there was no place for politics in American diplomacy. Nor, he said, would he tolerate “dithering” by an Obama administration State Department that he called “deeply obstructive of getting the American people the facts that they needed.” Now, as secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo is facing a political crisis that directly challenges his leadership of the department he once excoriated. He is accused by House Democrats of blocking their impeachment inquiry by resisting the release of information to Congress that may shed light on the Trump administration’s shadow foreign policy with Ukraine.

Famously, the motto of the Military Academy is “duty, honor, country.” Guess Mike was AWOL that day.

A Rubio supporter and harsh critic of Trump during the 2016 primaries, then-Congressman Pompeo was one of those spineless GOP apparatchiks who quickly swallowed his principles and rushed to lick his master’s boots when high level federal office was dangled bait-like before him (first as CIA Director, then as Secretary of State when Rex Tillerson tired of working for a “fucking moron”). Susan Glasser, writing in the New Yorker:

Pompeo, an evangelical Christian who keeps an open Bible on his desk, now says it’s possible that God raised up Trump as a modern Queen Esther, the Biblical figure who convinced the King of Persia to spare the Jewish people. He defines his own job as serving the President, whatever the President asks of him…

No matter what Trump has said or done, Pompeo has stood by him. (A former senior White House official told me) that, in private, too, Pompeo is “among the most sycophantic and obsequious people around Trump.” Even more bluntly, a former American ambassador told me, “He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.” Pompeo’s transformation reflects the larger story of how the Republican Party went from disdaining Trump to embracing him with barely a murmur of dissent.

We’re now told that Pompeo is eyeing a quick exit from the Cabinet—presumably to get out of the blast radius as the hand grenade that is Team Trump cooks off—and mounting a Senate run in his adopted home state of Kansas (which I also briefly called home, in my youth as an Army brat). While I’m not sure it will save him from legal jeopardy, I don’t doubt it’s possible that he will run, or that he might even win. What’s wrong with Kansas indeed.

But if the good people of the Jayhawk State do see fit to send him to the upper chamber of Congress, I hope they realize what kind of immoral criminal they’re getting—and rewarding.

TINKER TAYLOR SOLDIER HERO

You know who we don’t hear any about much any more, and with good reason? The whistleblower. Because he is now irrelevant. Because named officials have bravely come forward and confirmed everything the whistleblower alleged, and indeed far worse. (The only people still on about him are Republicans clutching at straws, or like Devin Nunes, trying to get him killed.)

So apropos of those brave individuals, let us now turn away from the US Secretary of State and toward the absolute other pole of moral fortitude among West Point grads, former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Bill Taylor.

William Taylor is a generation older than Mike Pompeo. He graduated from the Military Academy in 1969, during some of the darkest days of the Vietnam War, and spent six years as a US Army infantry officer, including tours with the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne (with whom he served in combat as a rifle company commander), and the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He subsequently spent three decades in civilian government service, principally as a diplomat, with assignments ranging from Brussels to Afghanistan to Iraq. Like Pompeo, he also earned a graduate degree from Harvard. Having been US Ambassador to Ukraine once already, from 2006 to 2009, Taylor reluctantly came out of retirement—out of a sheer sense of duty, he has said—and returned to Kiev to serve as chargé d’affaires ad interim after the White House abruptly removed Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was an obstacle to its illegal efforts to pressure Ukraine on Trump’s behalf. Yovanovitch too has now voluntarily come forward to testify about what she saw. (What is it they say about payback?)

The revelation of Taylor’s blunt text to Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland that it would be “crazy” to withhold Congressionally-allocated military aid to Ukraine for the personal partisan benefit of Donald Trump (and the strategic benefit of Vladimir Putin) gave voice to what everybody with half a brain already was thinking, and thoroughly discredited the “no quid pro quo” snake oil being peddled by Trump’s traveling medicine and salvation show of a presidency. (Mick “Get Over It” Mulvaney had already started that process. And as we all know, a quid pro quo is not even necessary for Trump’s shameless shakedown of Kiev to be both wrong and impeachable.)

Taylor’s subsequent testimony before Congress was a bangalore torpedo right up Trump’s fat ass, blasting a giant crater in his entire bullshit defense of his actions regarding Ukraine. Far from being a case of “Trump being Trump” and impulsively going off script to make a lone nutball suggestion to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky—which, admittedly, was plausible—Taylor not only confirmed the skullduggery we had learned from the Zelensky readout and the whistleblower complaint, but painted a portrait at once granular and expansive of a lengthy, multi-pronged, massively corrupt backchannel campaign to extort Kiev, Mob-style, into torching Joe Biden—or else.

Bill Taylor’s willingness to man up, speak the truth, and face down this criminal White House exemplifies exactly the kind of honor and integrity that his education at West Point and service in the US Army are supposed to be about. We have yet to see the full picture of what he had to say, but we will, and even what we already know from his 15-page opening statement ought to be—in a sane world—the end of this presidency. (Let me know if and when anyone finds that sane world, last seen on a milk carton around Fall 2016.)

And that was before Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman appeared on the scene.

BRIGHTON BEACH MEMOIRS

Alexander Vindman’s personal story beggars fiction. In the New York Times, Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes:

Vindman and his twin brother, Yevgeny, were 3 years old when they fled Ukraine with their father and grandmother, Jewish refugees with only their suitcases and $750, hoping for a better life in the United States. In the 40 years since, he has become a scholar, diplomat, decorated lieutenant colonel in the United States Army and Harvard-educated Ukraine expert on the White House National Security Council….

(A 2003 combat deployment to Iraq) left him wounded by a roadside bomb, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart. Since 2008, he has been an Army foreign area officer—an expert in political-military operations—specializing in Eurasia. Colonel Vindman has a master’s degree from Harvard in Russian, Eastern Europe and Central Asian Studies. He has served in the United States’ embassies in Kiev, Ukraine, and in Moscow, and was the officer specializing in Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before joining the National Security Council in 2018.

(More Harvard? What the hell is in the water up there in Cambridge?)

As it that ain’t enough, decades ago a photographer found the Vindman twins as boys in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian émigré section of Brooklyn, near Coney Island; later they appeared in Ken Burns’s documentary The Statue of Liberty. (Fitting, no?)

Jump ahead thirty years: LTC Vindman’s twin Yevgeny is now also a US Army lieutenant colonel and staffer on the National Security Council, a JAG officer and ETHICS expert, whom his brother brought to a meeting with the NSC’s top lawyer, John Eisenberg, when reporting his concern over Trump’s behavior on the July 25th phone call with Zelensky. Meaning Colonel Yevgeny Vindman— an ethics expert, it bears repeating—can corroborate that meeting and what was discussed in it.

This movie will write itself.

Alexander Vindman is the first impeachment witness who actually listened in on the Zelensky call. So much for the dishonest Republican mantra that “it’s all hearsay.” Like Ambassador Taylor, LTC Vindman’s testimony offered still more damning first person evidence of how the White House was engaged in wanton corruption to benefit Donald Trump at the expense of US national security and the rule of law. (Read his opening statement here.) Among the revelations, evidently, are a cinematic blowup at the White House on July 10, in which John Bolton was cast as the unlikely hero (!) objecting to the “drug deal” the administration was blatantly proposing to a visiting Ukrainian delegation. Apparently Colonel Vindman also exposed Gordon Sondland as having likely perjured himself in his own Congressional testimony when he claimed he knew of no quid pro quo with Kiev. And oh by the way: as many predicted, Colonel Vindman—who is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian—revealed that there were crucial omissions in the White House’s rough readout (apparently very rough indeed) of the “perfect” Zelensky call. Quelle surprise! Rose Mary Woods found!

If Ambassador Taylor breached the stonewall of Trump’s Fortress Obstruction, Colonel Vindman just stormed inside and shot its occupants in the head.

PAGING JOE WELCH

With its flimsy “hearsay” defense obliterated, the GOP now has no other option than to attack the honesty and credibility of Colonel Vindman and others who may follow him.

And attack they did.

Various right wingers, from the batshit Rudy Giuliani to torture enthusiast John Yoo to “MTV Real World” vet Sean P. Duffy (wait—I thought he went by Diddy now) questioned Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the United States, given that he is a refugee from Ukraine, which was still part of the Soviet Union when his family fled. One does not have to sniff very hard to detect the ancient stink of anti-Semitism. Don Jr. called him a “leftist.” Kevin McCarthy suggested he’s hard of hearing. The President himself lumped him in with the other “Never Trump” forces he has elsewhere described as spies, traitors, and “human scum.”

It was rich to watch these miserable chickenhawks try to malign the integrity of a valiant career soldier and decorated combat veteran like Colonel Vindman …..kind of like 2004, when a draft-dodging, Texas Air National Guard meeting-skipping George W. Bush wanted us to believe that former US Navy officer and Swift Boat skipper John Kerry and his Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart was the unpatriotic one. (Oh—and you know who else was a Deep State traitor to the flag? Former Marine officer and decorated combat vet turned lifelong public servant Robert S. Mueller III.)

The pre-emptive attacks on Colonel Vindman were among the most vile moments in a presidency rife with vile moments. But they were—and this is the truly pathetic part—not at all surprising.

John Yoo, one of the principal architects and legal defenders of the Bush administration’s torture policy, long ago lost any credibility he might have had. But even so, for him to recklessly use the word “espionage” about LTC Vindman’s motives—without even the tiniest shred of evidence—is an unconscionable offense. Here again, as with Pompeo, one’s background demands a higher standard of ethics. It’s one thing for an ignorant cretin like Trump to throw allegations like that around: he’s a D-list game show host-cum-con man who swims in that kind of sewer as readily as he breathes. But Yoo is a credentialed veteran of the national security apparatus at the highest level (even if it was mostly in the service of evil) and now, unaccountably, a law professor at UC Berkeley of all places. For him to do so is truly shameful.

It means little that there was quick pushback, even among some Republicans. Yoo scrambled to do damage control, but his walkback didn’t jibe with the verbatim comments he made on Fox, nor with their context. Duffy made a similar attempt at “clarification” of his statements to CNN. But the mere fact that Trump’s defenders reflexively sought to smear the messenger as their very first go-to move is a measure of how much Trump has debased our political dialogue and obliterated what little honor remained in the conservative movement. I suppose that’s what happens when you have nothing substantive on which to make your defense.

If Kellyanne Conway will forgive me for presuming to know the contents of another human heart, the attempt at walkback was surely motivated as much or more by the recognition of a grievous tactical error on the PR front as by any kind of principle or genuine regret over maligning a patriot. I also wonder how long this tenuous allegiance to some semblance of decency will hold as impeachment proceeds and Trump grows ever more like a cornered rat. In any case, the eagerness of the Republican Party and its media handmaidens to viciously attack this eminently honorable man may mark the lowest point yet in this Marianas Trench of a presidency.

Hey America, are we at our Joe Welch “At long last have you no sense of decency” moment yet?

We bloody well oughta be.

COWARDS BEND THE KNEE

Speaking of blasting through walls and shooting people in the head, it was ironic that LTC Vindman testified just days after we learned of the daring raid that killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, conducted (we’re told) by the doorkickers of Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the 75th Ranger Regiment, supported by a host of anonymous others. God bless them all.

So we saw two stellar examples of military courage and professionalism in the space of a week, one in Idlib Province, Syria, the other on Capitol Hill.

The juvenile bloodthirstiness and unearned braggadocio of Trump’s subsequent football-spiking has been widely reported and ridiculed, and rightly so. His is the sadism of the schoolyard bully who is actually a quivering coward—an armchair warrior unwilling to actually put his own life on the line (darned bone spurs!), or even to interrupt his well-feathered little life to serve his country, but who readily wants to piggyback on the bravery and valor of far better men and women than himself.

But every time you hear Trump brag about how “he” got al-Baghdadi—which is gonna be a lot over the coming year—you can skip right past the eyerolling absurdity of that, and his hypocrisy over Obama and the Bin Laden raid, and all the other attendant lies and ironies contained therein, and just focus on this:

The bold US military operation of last week was only possible because of crucial human intelligence (i.e., a spy deep inside al-Baghdadi’s inner circle) provided by the Kurdish intelligence service: the very people Trump just abandoned and betrayed.

I wouldn’t count on a lot of cooperation from them going forward.

Of course it is infuriating the Trump gets any credit at all for the al-Baghdadi mission, given that this carefully cultivated operation had to be rushed into action due to his precipitous and unconscionable withdrawal from northern Syria and the craven handing over of that region to the control of Kremlin, Ankara, and Damascus. (Not to mention resuscitating ISIS off life support, the removal of al-Baghdadi notwithstanding.) Speaking privately, Pentagon sources bluntly reported that the raid succeeded “despite Trump, not because of him.”

(Mic drop.)

But the American hero worship of the armed forces has gotten turbocharged in the Age of Trump, with its Pyongyang-style military parades on the mall and routine excusal of war crimes and textbook neo-fascist worship of those in uniform that leapfrogs right past overvalorization and approaches deification. As we know, Trump has surrounded himself with generals from the start, even if he doesn’t like to listen to them (seeing as he knows more than they do and all). For their part, the generals’ collective record has been mixed at best, from John Kelly, to the curiously quiet Jim Mattis, to Mike Flynn (whose illegal work as an unregistered agent for Turkey is now newly interesting), to Flynn’s successor as Trump’s National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, another USMA-bred Armor officer of my generation, one whom I greatly respected but whose reputation took a characteristic hit from that fraught service in the White House.

But of course, Trump’s alleged love and respect for the military hasn’t prevented him from attacking Gold Star families like the aforementioned Khans, heroic former POWs like John McCain, the “overrated” General Mattis or “Hillary Clinton backer” Admiral Bill McRaven (the SEAL commander of Neptune Spear, the Bin Laden mission), or telling grieving families that their fallen loved ones knew what they were getting into, or taking money from military dependent schools to build his idiotic beaded curtain at the border, not to mention all his shitty and self-destructive foreign policy decisions. The attacks on Colonel Vindman are just the latest in this piteous series. Not sure we ought to have expected better from a guy who claimed that chasing pussy at Studio 54 with Jeff Epstein was his “personal Vietnam.”

It astonishes me that any military professional or anyone else interested in national security could support this fake president and the wanton damage he continues to do to the same, despite the yogi-like contortions of his defenders to find a way. (Victor Davis Hanson, white courtesy phone.)

RANGERS LEAD THE WAY

Active duty military officers are required by law to stay out of politics, but they are also required by law to disobey unlawful orders, a mandate that also demands that they not remain silent when they see illegal acts committed by others, even those above them in the chain of command.

Given the not-so-friendly fire that it brought down on his head—as he surely knew it would, given Trump’s history—it was an act of tremendous bravery for LTC Vindman to do what he did. Yes, it was his duty, and he had been subpoenaed by Congress, but he could easily have dodged it, remained mum and anonymous, protected by the same stonewall that Team Trump has erected around many other administration officials. But it is clear that Alexander Vindman is made of sterner stuff.

Let’s go back to the West Point honor code: “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal or tolerate those who do.” (Emphasis mine.) That is the code of the Military Academy specifically, but the ethos pervades the entire Army at large. The real transgression would have been for LTC Vindman to have sat on his hands and looked at his low-quarters after being witness to Trump’s egregious abuse of power.

In addition to men like Taylor and Vindman who have testified before Congress in the impeachment inquiry, a number of distinguished retired military officers have bravely stood up and said that the emperor is butt naked (also: stark raving mad and covered in boils). Prominent among them are ADM (Ret.) McRaven, GEN (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, GEN (Ret.) Michael Hayden, GEN (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, GEN (Ret.) Wesley Clark, and GEN (Ret.) Colin Powell (who is also a former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, of course), all of them with four stars on their shoulders. I am so proud to see these principled public servants—and for me, personally speaking, current and former US Army officers in particular—standing up for the rule of law and helping hold a lawless chief executive to account.

Men like Bill Taylor and Alexander Vindman make me proud to have worn the uniform, and everything it is supposed to stand for…..which is most welcome given how much the likes of Mike Pompeo have dishonored it.

********

Photo: Shutterstock

 

 

The Sheriff Is Near: White People, “Blazing Saddles,” and Barack Obama

Sheriff and Bart

This week let’s take a break from the ongoing implosion of the man from Queens, even as sixteen ton weights, anvils, and rockslides continue to fall on our Wile E. Coyote of a pretend president. (And a new shipment from the Acme Dynamite Co. was just delivered by an honorable lifelong public servant and former US Ambassador named Bill Taylor.)

Well, kind of a break. I want to examine a movie from almost a half century ago that has something profound to say about how we got to this pretty pass.

YEAH, BUT I SHOOT WITH THIS HAND

In 1974, Mel Brooks directed two feature films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which have gone down as iconic American classics. Most comedy directors would give their right arms to make even one such movie in a lifetime. It’s astonishing to think Mel made two, and in the same year. (In fact, he made them simultaneously, shooting the former in the daytime and working with Gene Wilder on the script for the latter at night.)

Of the pair, Young Frankenstein is my favorite (in case you care) but Blazing Saddles may be the more important.

I saw it again not long ago at Radio City with my wife and filmmaking partner Ferne Pearlstein, with Mel Brooks interviewed onstage by Kevin Salter. (Sign of the technological times: they showed it on Blu-ray, in a venue the size of a space shuttle hangar. Still looked pretty good.) “Interviewed” is a bit generous: the format was mainly an excuse for Mel to ham it up before an adoring audience, which suited us all just fine, though I hope Salter got a flat rate and wasn’t paid by the word.

If you haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), let me be the first to inform you that this movie wouldn’t get made today even if Steven Spielberg wanted to do it with Beyonce and Lady Gaga playing the Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder roles.

It isn’t just the voluminous use of the n-word (you thought I was gonna say “liberal,” didn’t you?) among other period transgressions. Yes, the film is firmly of its less enlightened time, to include homophobic jokes, retrograde sex roles, gags about African-American penis size and sexual prowess, and Mel Brooks in redface as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chieftain, all of which would be streng verboten today, pardon the expression. (It also includes Count Basie, Klansmen, and Nazis of course, without whom no Mel Brooks movie is complete.)

But it’s more than that. The whole picture is so freewheeling, anarchic, and playful, ending with a fourth wall-breaking scene of joyous comedic chaos worthy of the Marx Brothers or Jacques Tati—meta before there was even a word for it. When Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-type tomes are written bemoaning the decline of the auteur-driven American independent cinema of the 1970s, Mel rarely comes in for the kind of acclaim lavished on Altman, Rafelson, Coppola, Ashby, Scorsese, et al. But Blazing Saddles is as rulebreaking as anything those dudes ever made.

(Traditionally, among sniffling cineastes, Mel doesn’t even fare well when measured against his former Sid Caesar writing comrade Woody Allen, with whom he is often unfairly contrasted. Though Mel may have gotten the last laugh there.)

To call Blazing Saddles undisciplined would be churlish and miss the whole goddam point. Its gleeful mischief-making makes for a delightful bookend with its more restrained sibling Young Frankenstein. Though the two are usually thought of in tandem as the archetypical Mel Brooks movies, the latter was actually Gene Wilder’s baby, for which he recruited a reluctant Mel as a director-for-hire. But the alchemy was magical, in a Lennon & McCartney way. Never has Mel Brooks been kept on such a tight leash, reflecting Wilder’s rigorous vision for that picture. At the same time, Mel’s five-year-old-loose-in-a-tea-party energy shines through, lending the film a silliness that sits in beautiful contrast to its loving tribute to James Whale.

Sadly but tellingly, the two men never worked together again.

EXCUSE ME WHILE I WHIP THIS OUT

Blazing Saddles is among the most anarchic of Mel Brooks’s comedies. Indeed, in style it is not far off from his late period disasters, such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), two in a series of bombs that almost marked a cringeworthy coda to his oeuvre, before he went back to a brilliant idea from the beginning of his career, that of staging The Producers as an actual Broadway musical, which was its original pre-cinematic ideation.

On Broadway, the kind of broad farce in which Brooks specialized—and that had fallen out of favor with movie audiences—found a deliriously enthusiastic fan base, resulting in one of the greatest ironies in modern showbiz. A movie telling the story of a deliberately offensive musical about Hitler that was intended to flop went on to become a genuine (but to some still offensive) musical about Hitler that turned into the biggest hit in the history of American theater (at least until a certain Nuyorican genius read Ron Chernow).

Ferne and I interviewed Mel Brooks for our 2016 documentary The Last Laugh, about humor and the Holocaust. (More recently, last May, we interviewed his biographer Patrick McGilligan, author of Funny Man: Mel Brooks, onstage at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, under the auspices of Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Executive Director of the Levy Center.) As Harry Shearer notes in our documentary, the 1968 film version of The Producers was a scandal because it was considered to be in “bad taste”; 33 years later, the idea had become anodyne enough to be a ginormous hit in the most mainstream entertainment venue this side of CBS-TV.

But it was not merely timing that made Blazing Saddles a lasting triumph and those others critical and commercial flops. Arguably, Mel was at the peak of his powers in 1974. His joke-a-minute, parody-heavy style was still fresh—prefiguring Airplane!—and he working with rock star collaborators like his co-writers Richard Pryor (who was also meant to star before the studio balked) and Andrew Bergman, and actors like Cleavon Little, Slim Pickens, and of course Gene Wilder himself (who on short notice replaced an ailing Gig Young—no joke—as the alcoholic gunslinger the Waco Kid).

Above all, the socio-political content of the movie elevated it above a mere yukfest, which is also not something you often hear said of Mel Brooks’s films (but is also true of The Producers). But watching it again, I was struck by a blindingly obvious epiphany, one not available to anyone in 1974:

Blazing Saddles is a prescient foretelling of the presidency of Barack Obama.

MONGO ONLY PAWN

Let me elaborate. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.)

Blazing Saddles tells the story of the Old West town of Rock Ridge, whose redneck residents are scandalized by the arrival of a new sheriff, who is black.

The sheriff—named Black Bart, of course (this is a Mel Brooks movie, remember)—has been unwittingly dispatched to Rock Ridge by the buffoonish governor, played by Brooks himself, at the suggestion of his evil Attorney General, the mustache-twirling, Richelieu-like Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman. The idea is to drive the townspeople off their land in disgust so the railroad can come through, with kickbacks aplenty for the bad guys. (So not only did Mel Brooks foresee Barack Obama, he also foresaw Donald Trump and Bill Barr.)

In their outrage, the furious townspeople try everything they can to get rid of the new sheriff, from little old ladies slinging the vilest of racial epithets, to a brute force attack by former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras as the horse-punching Mongo, to the honeytrap ministrations of a German chanteuse with a Biggus Dickus-style labiodental approximant. (“Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben, baby.”)

The aforementioned Teutonic temptress, Lili von Shtupp (look it up, goyim), is played by the brilliant Madeline Kahn—in her day, maybe the greatest American comedienne this side of Carol Burnett, and after Lucille Ball. (All redheads, fwiw.) It’s a joy to see her play this Dietrichesque sex bomb, sandwiched between roles as a pair of uptight and shrewish fiancées: first in her feature debut, Peter Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a movie nearly as madcap in its way as anything Brooks ever did, and then again two years later opposite Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (although to be sure, she transforms from prim and proper by the end of that one). (NB for film nerds: Also check out her very first film appearance, in a short, the Oscar-nominated Bergman parody, De Düva, from 1968.)

But I digress.

Ultimately, of course, Black Bart triumphs, effortlessly outwitting the villains, Bugs Bunny style (literally, at one point). Cleavon Little brings a velveteen elan to the part (prefiguring a later euphemism, Wilder’s Waco Kid calls him a “a “dazzling urbanite”). But one wonders what the prodigiously gifted Richard Pryor would have done with the role, were the studio chiefs not too chickenshit to take a chance on such a revolutionary artist (and Pryor able to rein in his alarming cocaine habit). A hint is to be found in his subsequent collaborations with Wilder, such as Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980) and the lesser known See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).

Even as it is, Pryor’s voice is all over the film, Brooks and the other writers having wisely realized early on that a bunch of middle-aged Jewish tummelers could not plausibly script the Black Bart character. According to McGilligan’s book, it was also Pryor who encouraged the rampant use of the n-word, arguing that it wasn’t believable that the rednecked characters in the film wouldn’t have used it.

As an indictment of racism, Blazing Saddles ain’t exactly Do the Right Thing, but it’s powerful in its own way. If nothing else, it’s notable for having a black hero with a white sidekick in a “major motion picture”—as they used to say—and from a giant studio to boot (Warner Bros.)….. and this in 1974. It also tackles the issue of race head on, in a way that few so-called “serious” films of the period did—or have since.

But above all, looking back on it now from a distance of almost a half-century, it’s hard not to see in Blazing Saddles, defiantly silly as it is, a harbinger of Barack Obama and the sputtering racist anger that greeted him in in January 2009 when he arrived in Washington DC as the new sheriff in town. (Full disclosure: I briefly overlapped with Obama in high school in Honolulu, for just one year. Shockingly omitted from all of Barack’s books.)

Obama was attacked almost from the moment he came to national prominence—with a powerhouse keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention—and that hostility only increased as he secured his party’s nomination in 2008 and eventually won the general election and ascended to the presidency.

Obama’s victory famously caused even some Republicans, by their own admission, to swell with pride (prematurely, it turned out) at how awesome we were for having elected a black head of state, and only 134 years after ending slavery! (Ahem). But the epidemic of dislocated shoulders from patting ourselves on the back soon stopped as it became clear that lots of our countrymen were not so thrilled.

The Secret Service reported a 400% increase in death threats on the POTUS. He was subjected to scrutiny—and just plain attack—that no previous president in modern times ever had to endure, proving once again in almost absurd fashion that a black man in America has to work twice as hard as a white one to get the same respect and acknowledgment. He was attacked for being black, of course, and simultaneously—dishonestly—for not “really” being black, but actually biracial—as if he had a choice to identify as white in our one-drop society. (Because a bunch of white Republicans are genuinely concerned about gradations of African-American identity and are the true arbiters thereof). Recently, the renowned civil rights activist Donald Trump Jr. has assailed Kamala Harris on the same grounds.

Which brings us back to Blazing Saddles (which, according to McGilligan’s biography, President Obama told Mel Brooks he loved).

The angry reaction to Obama’s ascent among a not insignificant number of white Americans was a perfect real world realization of the shocked cry of the people of Rock Ridge when they first saw Black Bart, their new lawman, ride into town:

“The sheriff is a n—-r!”

IS BISMARCK A HERRING?

To have ever thought we had entered a “post-racial” society now looks like willful naiveté in the extreme.

Many white people in the US could never accept the idea of an African-American president. Some deluded themselves into thinking it simply could not be: he must have somehow vaulted into the Oval Office illegally! Slightly more rational others were able to fathom it, but still saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.

I saw that mentality vividly even among otherwise intelligent, educated conservative friends who nevertheless bore a disproportionate animus toward Obama. When pressed, these folks always insisted it was about “policy,” never race, even though they could rarely cite which policies they objected to…..and when they did, the policies were often center-right ones that had originated with Republicans themselves (such as Romneycare, er, I mean Obamacare).

Often the critiques were abstract and coded, revolving around intangibles like “leadership.” Which was like talking about a black quarterback’s athleticism versus a white quarterback’s intelligence. And as I say, this was among so-called “reasonable” Republicans. The dislike—outright hatred even—among more virulently hostile right wingers was far worse, of course.

I used to say that being called “racist” is the worst insult one can level in contemporary American life—that even racists don’t like to be called racist. That’s still true for many, as evidenced by the sputtering fury of many Trump supporters when confronted with the blatantly race-oriented subtext of some of their beliefs.

But by the same token, since 2015 we’ve seen that there are plenty of racists in America who are openly proud of it.

Not at all coincidentally, the Tea Party movement began in January 2009, right after a black guy raised his right hand and was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Despite the pretense that the group’s formation was driven by an anti-tax stance—hence the name—its true genesis was self-evident and a lot more crude. A certain segment of the American public (hint: the ones who think Colin Kaepernick out to be deported, at best) never accepted the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency. The right wing fever dream that he would be proved to have been born in Kenya was the ultimate manifestation of that frustration: equal parts neo-Confederatism, back-to-Africa bullshit, wild-eyed John Bircher conspiracy theory, and clutching at straws for some quasi-credible reason to justify their frantic racist wish that he really could not be the goddam president, could he?

Ironically, it is Trump whose presidency is arguably illegitimate, given the degree of foreign involvement in bringing it into being. Of course, just saying that invites sneers and allegations of hypocrisy from MAGA Nation. It goes without saying that it’s a false equivalence: calling Trump illegitimate might be dismissed as just tit for tat, or payback, or a reversal of the tables that liberals won’t acknowledge, were it not for the Mt. Everest of proof to that end, proof that simply didn’t exist when that charge was leveled at Obama. Chicken Little saying the sky is falling is not the same thing as Londoners saying the same thing during the Blitz.

The right’s hysteria about Obama now confers on it the useful camouflage of saying reasonable outrage over Trump is the same thing.

Yeah, well, segregationists were mad over Brown v. Board of Education too—but it doesn’t put them on the same moral plane as Rosa Parks.

HOWARD JOHNSON IS RIGHT

Almost three years into the reign of Donald J. Trump it is now painfully clear that we vastly underestimated the hostility, both in amount and degree, toward Barack Obama in these United States.

I say that in full knowledge of the lynchings in effigy, the portrayals of the Obamas as monkeys, the poison of birtherism, and all the rest. Yeah, we knew there was a huge segment of racists and scumbags who hated this man for no other reason than the amount of melanin in his system. But few people imagined it was so pervasive that—in conjunction with an equally virulent strain of misogyny, the machinations of the plutocratic GOP, and the aid of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin—it would eventually lead to the installation (I am loath to say election) of a manifestly unfit, proudly ignorant, criminal con artist and pathological narcissist who wears his own racism like a badge of honor and blithely foments it in his obedient followers.

So let’s be blunt. The backlash over Obama—the sense among some white people that they were losing control of “their” country, the desperate hunt for a reason to annul his election and legitimize the racist fury toward him, the attacks on him for everything from putting his feet up on his desk to wearing a khaki-colored suit to putting Dijon mustard on a hamburger—led directly to the rise of Trump. Trump himself is famously obsessed with Obama, toward whom he has an obvious inferiority complex that he doesn’t even bother to hide. He is plainly hellbent on undoing everything Obama did in office, from the ACA to the JCPOA and all the alphabet soup in between, and matching him for honors, particularly the Nobel Peace Prize. (Good luck!) Privately, his advisors have said that the best way to get him to do anything is to goad him that Obama wouldn’t do it (like launch an ill-advised military raid in Yemen that wound up killing 10-30 civilians, including at least one child and a US Navy SEAL).

Since Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017—you remember, when 17 billion people flooded the National Mall—the rule of the Trump administration has further laid bare the vicious racism that still underlies everything in this country. Every-thing. Could it possibly be otherwise given the original sin of slavery with which we as a country were born? Per above, we once imagined so, flattering ourselves to think we had collectively moved beyond that. But clearly we have not.

Trump’s entire political career is grounded in racism (of which his rampant xenophobia is but a subset). He rose as a political figure by spreading the rancid lie of birtherism. He announced his candidacy for president with a speech slandering Mexicans as drug dealers as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. He trafficked in racist tropes throughout his run and into his administration, trading the traditional Republican dog whistle for a bullhorn, and found it worked even better. He collected fawning endorsements from the likes of the Klan and had to be strongarmed into a tepid disavowal.

In office he infamously tried to draw an equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protestors, claimed there “very fine people on both sides,” spoke of “shithole” African countries, and pursued violent and draconian anti-immigration policies whose racial component is unmistakable, to name just a few of his greatest hits. Even now, when in trouble (read: always), he reflexively defaults to racist appeals to his odious base, who always have his back and thrill to such hatemongering and bigotry. Witness yesterday’s self-pitying, beyond-tone-deaf reference to the right and proper Congressional inquiry into his demonstrable wrongdoing as a “lynching.”

Earlier I recoiled at saying Donald Trump had been “elected” president, citing Russian skullduggery and other extenuating circumstances. Those still hold. But they don’t negate the fact that almost 63 million Americans did vote for him. (About three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, I hasten to remind everyone, but for reasons too infuriating to review, that’s not how we choose our president.)

Please drink that in: 63 million Americans were insufficiently bothered by Trump’s wanton racism, among all his other ills, to think that the other candidate would be a better choice. I’m ashamed of that, and history is not likely to be more forgiving.

We are now a long way from a Mel Brooks comedy; what we’re in is more like a Michael Haneke nightmare. But the premise of Mel’s 45-year-old farce, with its blunt, clear-eyed treatment of the shameless racism in America’s collective DNA, is more instructive now than ever.

And there is a final irony. In the end, the racist local yokels in Blazing Saddles eventually see the error of their ways and rally to the defense of Sheriff Bart, whom they rightly recognize as their savior from the venal authorities who wish to destroy them.

Thus far, the American people have not on the whole proven as wise as the denizens of Rock Ridge.

Atrocity and Euphemism

Atrocity and Euphemism copy

Ukrainegate continues to consume the Trump administration like a California wildfire. With each passing day more evidence accumulates of our fake president’s criminal intent, the vastness of the wrongdoing by members of his administration at the highest levels (to include the Secretary of State and Attorney General), and the exposure of its shameful lies and alibis to try to cover it all up. Giuliani’s Ukrainian gangster pals got arrested and he may be next, an acting Cabinet officer resigned while others are being subpoenaed, and perhaps most notable of all, intrepid members of the Foreign Service continue to break ranks, defying the orders of their own State Department by testifying before Congress to provide still more eyepopping incrimination.

Impeachment is all but a certainty at this point; conviction in the Senate remains a longshot, but not nearly as long as it was a week ago, given the dyepacks that continue to explode almost daily, spraying blue paint on Donald Trump and his clown car of vile henchmen.

In addition to the self-inflicted wounds Trump continues to self-inflict over Ukraine specifically, our Dear Leader has of course added to his troubles with his unconscionable actions in Syria, alienating even his staunchest senatorial sycophants when he needs them most, an incredible accomplishment given their heretofore permanent positioning prostrate at his feet.

But needless to say, the impact of the US withdrawal from Syria on Trump’s political fortunes is far from its most significant consequence.

It’s hard to assess where Trump has done the most damage as president, since the slate of candidates is so vast and competitive. In the long run, climate change is probably the, er, winner, if we are judging by sheer destructiveness to the entire planet. Facilitating nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea is certainly in the running, as is undermining respect for the rule of law and a free press in the US, devastating the global standing of the United States as a democratic nation and credible ally, skewing an entire branch of government for decades to come by packing the federal judiciary with right wing ideologues all the way up to and including the Supreme Court, and generally dealing a savage blow to American representative democracy as a whole.

But if you want to talk about simple, straightforward violence to human beings, three related episodes stand out to me: Syria, the Saudis, and our southern border.

DIPLOMACY HAPPENS AT NIGHT

We all knew from the start that Donald Trump was a proudly uninformed ignoramus on the topic of foreign policy (also: all other topics), one who mulishly refuses to read the PDB or listen to the subject matter experts, who has a hopeless man-crush on various tyrants, and who acts impulsively and transactionally and mostly to line his own pockets.

But never has his shitshow of a non-skillset been on more blatant display than in the abandonment of our Kurdish allies, the attendant and lasting damage to US credibility, the unleashing of more than 10,000 previously incarcerated ISIS fighters back onto the global battlefield, and the gift that this whole fiasco has been to the unholy trinity of Assad, Erdogan, and Putin.

How bad was it? So bad that even some Republicans noticed.

The Trump administration is now a willing party to ethnic cleansing—genocide, they used to call it. It’s hard to say what aspect of it most sickening: the humanitarian crisis…….the reckless and unnecessary destabilization of this part of the Middle East, one of the few areas in that region where we’d had any real success…..the gobsmacking unforced error of reviving the Islamic State….. the anonymous agony of US Special Forces soldiers who expressed their shame at having been ordered to turn their backs on the brave Kurdish comrades beside whom they have fought…..the sight of Russian armored vehicles flying the tricolored flag as they rolled though northern Syria, of Russian soldiers wandering around a hastily evacuated US base, and of US Air Force F-15s bombing another of our own bases to keep it out of enemy hands. (Paging Milo Minderbinder.)

And all because inexplicably we saw fit to install a sociopathic D-list game show host and serial con man as the leader of the so-called Free World.

Truly a Russian asset could not have done a better job of mucking this up for the United States and handing an effortless victory to the Kremlin and its allies in Damascus and Tehran. (Hey, has anyone ever wondered if Trump is secretly working for Putin? Because it sure looks like it.)

From Helsinki to Brussels to the Oval Office, Trump has consistently served Putin’s interests over those of the United States he is sworn to protect and defend, but never has his blatant fealty to the Russian president been on more jawdropping display. At this point not even Trump’s most gymnastic apologists (looking at you, Victor Davis Hanson) can deny that he is openly advancing Russia’s interests over those of the US. But I am sure they will try.

Similarly, there has hardly ever been a more stark example of the wrongheadedness of isolationism—a mindset that has long been a staple of the American right wing, and long before Trump I hasten to note. But his ascent has provided a gutting demonstration of its criminal foolishness. One need not be a hawk to understand that, by sheer dint of our military and global influence, the US cannot just withdraw from its global commitments (least of all at the whim of a monstrous cretin who happens to have the nuclear codes). That is not an argument for imperialist adventurism, but merely a recognition of practical reality, and the interconnectedness of international security.

Disengaging from ill-advised Middle Eastern wars is an admirable objective, for sure. But claiming you’re doing that while ordering a disastrous, impulsive withdrawal that opens the door to a sectarian bloodbath that benefits our enemies, AND in the same week stepping up US involvement in a much more illegitimate war in Yemen kind of undermines your cred.

Ironically, federal law—both in the Constitution as originally conceived and in subsequent legislation such as the War Powers Act of 1973—is set up to inhibit the commander-in-chief from unilaterally deploying the nation’s armed forces into combat. It’s not set up to stop him or her from sparking horrific violence by withdrawing forces, as Trump did last week. It was the kind of abrupt bellum interruptus that Donald Trump would have been smart to have thrice executed when he was still married to Ivana and they were pumping out young’uns.

Posterity will look upon our actions with withering judgment. And I say “our” because the world does not look upon what is happening in Syria as the actions of Donald Trump, but collectively of the nation that unaccountably elected him and even now is moving painfully slowly to eject him from power.

DAMASCUS EXPERIENCE

I mentioned that last week some Republicans cautiously raised their heads out of their gopher holes to object to the withdrawal from Syria. Two cheers. Jamelle Bouie in the New York Times and Susan Glasser in the New Yorker both wrote about the hypocrisy of such GOP complaints while it nonchalantly shrugs over Ukraine, just as it shrugged over Russian interference in our election, to which the antics with Kiev are of course related.

The unavoidable bottom line is that Republicans simply do not care about things like the evisceration of the Constitution or the debasement of our democracy in the same way that they care about US power projection. (In fact, they cheer it, fans of the unitary executive that they are.) Then again, if it’s simply a matter of hawkishness, where was the outrage over North Korea, for example, arguably just as damaging as the abandonment of our Kurdish allies and the early Christmas gift we just gave to Putin and Assad? (The withdrawal from the JCPOA was another incredible idiocy, but at least that was in line with meatheaded Republican orthodoxy.) For that matter, Ukrainegate has a concrete foreign policy component of its own, in terms of the hostage-holding of US military aid to an ally in the midst of a shooting war with the Russian Federation.

I’ve written before about the bizarre willingness of the conservative community to abandon decades of bellicosity and holster its sabers in order to maintain obeisance to a guy who used to sell mail order steaks. (See Surrender of the Hawks, February 22, 2018). So why did they suddenly rediscover their collective testicles now, when they were so meek and mild over previous lunacies? I confess it surprised me: I firmly believed that they would find a way to excuse the betrayal of the Kurds, just as they turned a blind eye to the DPRK fiasco, the humiliation of Helsinki, the undermining of NATO, and—oh yeah—the general enabling of Russian power, to include giving them sway over US elections (though it’s fair to characterize Syria as a component of that).

Some pundits have suggested that the outcry over Syria, coming as it did hot on the heels of Ukrainegate, was a kind of sublimation. Unwilling to utter a discouraging word about Trump’s blatantly unconstitutional behavior in leveraging a vulnerable foreign ally to smear one of his domestic political foes, Republicans channeled their frustrations with Trump into the withdrawal from Syria, where the longstanding charade of GOP commitment to national security offered some cover. (To the extent that they really have frustrations with Trump in the first place, or really care about the Kurds or global security at all, beyond mere posturing.)

Maybe. In the end, it’s largely irrelevant and serves only to highlight their hypocrisy, except insofar as it may mark the beginning of a breach in the red wall around Trump heading into an impeachment fight.

I don’t know if this glimpse of nascent Republican courage (note: sliding scale) will develop into a substantive and lasting break with their tinhorn hero; I haven’t exactly been dazzled by their moral fiber thus far. However, I am confident that the debacle in Syria will do down as one of the most shameful chapters in recent American foreign policy, and maybe the dumbest, worst, and most unforgivable international relations decision of the modern era. The capper to the whole affair was Trump’s flip, valor-stealing comment that the Kurds weren’t with “us” on Normandy Beach. (NB: were any Trumps there, or were their bone spurs acting up?)

As the meme goes, the Saudis didn’t help us at Normandy either, but fifteen of them showed up for 9/11.

ARABIAN NIGHTS

Which brings us to the House of Saud.

Even as he crowed—dishonestly of course—that he was bringing US troops home (in truth they are just being re-deployed elsewhere, and it is now clear haven’t even left Syria), Trump turned around and sent another 1000 troops to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to serve the interests of his murderous business partners there. Talk about insult to injury.

The Saudi regime is firmly fixed as among the worst on the planet. In the first four months of this year alone it executed 105 people, most of them by beheading, including 37 decapitated in a single mass execution last April. It is a medieval theocracy, a plutocracy, and a hereditary kleptocracy, with an economy greased by the labor of indentured immigrant workers tantamount to slavery. It is misogynistic to an Atwoodian extreme, viciously intolerant of other religions, and a state sponsor of terrorism, including against the United States through its Islamist proxies. It exports a particularly hateful and violent form of religious extremism, and per above, was the source of the vast majority of the 9/11 hijackers. If in response to September 11th the US was going to invade another country besides Afghanistan, it should have been Saudi Arabia, not Iraq.

Not surprisingly, Donald Trump is cozy as cozy can be with this regime, whose autocratic values he shares, and which is a lucrative partner for his family and that of his son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

But as with many of the horrors of modern Republicanism, Trump did not start this particular greasefire, though he certainly poured gasoline on it—a fitting metaphor even if I do say so myself. US-Saudi relations were born of a demon seed, with the foundation of the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO) in 1933, and reached a new level of odiousness with the oil industry connections between the Families Bush and Saud, which contributed to the deployment of half a million US troops to the region in the Gulf war. (I was one of them.) But Trump has taken things to a new extreme, the cherry atop the rancid cake being his excusal of the grisly murder of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, a legal permanent resident of the United States, and his refusal to hold Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman accountable. For those who have forgotten, Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Ankara, Turkey by assassins acting on MbS’s orders, then brutally dismembered with a bonesaw, all surreptitiously captured on audiotape by the Turks. In the wake of that deliberately gruesomely assassination, it is no exaggeration to say that the Saudis might rightly be a pariah state were it not for the patronage and protection of the US, which is to say, of Donald Trump. L’etat c’est him in spades, in this case.

(And that too is connected to the current Syrian fiasco. David Frum, in his concise survey of the reasons Trump gave this gift to Erdogan, cited as one of them “Payoff to Turkey to cover up recording of Khashoggi murder by Trump allies.”)

The Saudi regime is currently prosecuting an especially ugly little regional war in Yemen, one that the US has no business abetting. One can make a utilitarian case for American military engagement in various Middle Eastern quagmires, nasty though they are, from northern Syria to Iraq to Afghanistan. There can be no such rationale for US involvement in Yemen, apart from our venal partnership with the despots of Riyadh. That we would in the same week abandon genuine allies like the Kurds while increasing military assistance to monsters like the rulers of Saudi Arabia is doubly stomach-turning.

But we did, the ghost of Jamal Khashoggi, and the ashes of 3000 Americans at Ground Zero, be damned.

Because of course.

LITTLE DARLING OF MINE

Let me now veer off on what may seem like a tangent. But it ain’t.

As an international atrocity, the unfolding massacre of the Kurdish people is twinned with an existing domestic one: the continuing state-sponsored kidnapping of children by the government of the United States and their incarceration in concentration camps along our own southern border.

The newest outrages in Ukraine and Syria threaten to eclipse the horrific theft of small children and (in many cases) permanent separation of them from their parents, to say nothing of their inhuman detention in filthy conditions in these camps. But even as international horrors pile up, we cannot forget what continues to go on in our name domestically, as it of a piece with the same criminal mentality that is now giving us those other atrocities as well.

We need not quibble over the term “concentration camp,” even though what we have meets the dictionary definition by any reasonable measure. As I’ve written before, if you’re having a national debate about whether or not you have concentration camps, you probably do. (That conservatives are more outraged about the use of the term than about the camps themselves speaks volumes.)

What the Trump administration is doing—taking babies and small children from their parents, ostensibly as a means to deter border crossing and asylum seeking—is beyond unconscionable. Indeed, the deterrence argument itself is specious: there is no pragmatic point to this policy, only cruelty for cruelty’s sake, to which MAGA Nation openly thrills. And while Donald Trump and his goons are the source of this sin, we as a people are complicit for not being out in the streets demanding a stop to it and consequences for those who perpetrate it.

I keep returning in these pages to The Handmaid’s Tale, which is rapidly displacing 1984 as the most pertinent and prescient vision of a dystopian future, which is to say the present. It is the book for our times, and not for nothing (as they say in Long Island) is the ripping of children from their mothers central to its premise—nor merely a matter of fiction. Masha Gessen, who brings the gravitas of someone raised in the Soviet system, has written about how the forced abduction of children from their parents is a time-honored technique of state terrorism:

Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror. Memoirs of Stalinist terror are full of stories of strong men and women disintegrating when their loved ones are threatened: this is the moment when a person will confess to anything. The single most searing literary document of Stalinist terror is “Requiem,” a cycle of poems written by Anna Akhmatova while her son, Lev Gumilev, was in prison. But, in the official Soviet imagination, it was the Nazis who tortured adults by torturing children. In “Seventeen Moments of Spring,” a fantastically popular miniseries about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany, a German officer carries a newborn out into the cold of winter in an effort to compel a confession out of his mother, who is forced to listen to her baby cry.

But speaking of Orwell, long after the obliteration of Marxism-Leninism as the central political threat to liberal democracy, the enduring genius of his signature novel remains his vision of the language as a weapon. And as a general rule, the worse the atrocity, the more urgent the resort to semantics.

In addition to the controversy over “concentration camp,” we spoke earlier about “ethnic cleansing”—another world class verbal dodge—and we see that craven dynamic in play again in the so-called “family separation policy.” Could there be a more clinical, bloodless, anodyne term for state-sponsored kidnapping? It would be like stabbing someone in the chest and calling it an “ad hoc torso perforation.”

Let us therefore banish “family separation” to the dustbin of history, to coin a phrase, and henceforth call it what it is. And what it is is a crime against humanity, committed in our name.

The Trump administration, led by immigration czar Stephen Miller—among the few figures who can give Trump himself a run for his money as one of the most loathsome people on earth—has simultaneously bragged about how tough it’s been with this sadistic policy, and pretended it isn’t doing it at all. Such is the gaslighting that is its stock in trade. The vile lie that the Obama administration did the same thing has already been thoroughly debunked and is not worth wasting a dollop of metaphorical ink here. In truth, the institutionalized kidnapping of children as a matter of federal policy in the United States is unprecedented, and the direct result of the deliberately sadistic philosophy of the Trump administration.

Sometimes they own it like barbarians, and sometimes they deny it like cowards—yet another marker of their absolute moral repugnance.

I have written at length about xenophobia (just a fancy word for racism) as the central animating impulse of Trumpism. John Oliver—himself an immigrant and naturalized American—recently ran a brilliant segment exposing the farce of this administration’s incessant claims that it supports “legal” immigration. In truth, Trump and his followers bear a white-hot animus toward immigration of all kinds, full stop, legal and otherwise, save for a paltry few Rinso white Scandinavians.

Confronted with the fact that, Native Americans excepted, we are all of us immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, anti-immigration fanatics often talk about how their own ancestors came to America “the right way.” But as Oliver points out, before 1870 there were no real restrictions on immigration to the US at all: all you had to do was show up, which is very much what today’s undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers are still doing, even as Team Trump tries to demonize them for it.

Confronted with the blindingly obvious fact that white Europeans stole this land from its original inhabitants by means of murder, enslavement, and genocide in the first place, those same xenophobes have no real answer at all, except twisted pride. It is no wonder that such people have also convinced themselves that we are justified in punishing small children for the actions of their parents—what they self-righteously call “breaking the law.” (“Their parents should have brought them here!” is the standard response.) Those same people are remarkably silent when it comes to other lawbreaking, such as campaign finance laws, the emoluments clause, and conspiring with a foreign power to defraud the United States.

The sheer human cost of this vomit-inducing policy is apparent if you’ve seen any of the scenes of those weeping parents and children who have been fortunate enough to be reunited, holding on to each other for dear life, as if they aren’t sure when someone with a badge and a gun is going to try to tear them apart again.

Is it cheesy to go to Paul Simon here? Maybe, but if your heart doesn’t break when you hear legendary Jamaican drummer Winston Grennan’s drumroll at the top of “Mother and Child Reunion,” you might be dead:

No, I would not give you false hope

On this strange and mournful day

But the mother and child reunion

Is only a motion a way

Therefore, as we move forward with the long overdue process of removing a criminally unfit president from office, and coping with the unfolding bloodbath overseas that he capriciously precipitated, let us not lose sight of this other, earlier atrocity that he perpetrated at home, one that carries on even now, and will surely be remembered as one of the darkest domestic chapters in modern American history, to go with the stain of that international one.

What is going on in Syria, in Saudi Arabia, and on our southern border are all interconnected atrocities, all reflective of what our country has devolved into. Let us redress their root cause, or share the everlasting guilt for failing to do so.

 *********

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images. A two-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is searched near the US/Mexico border.

 

Trump Shoots Man on Fifth Avenue

GQ-Trump-100319

It’s become very simple now.

We used to ask if Trump had conspired with a foreign power for his own gain—first as a candidate for president, then more recently, while in office—violating his oath, committing high crimes and misdemeanors, and betraying the national security of the country he is sworn to defend.

Then he voluntarily released a transcript of a phone call that made it clear that he did exactly that, while inexplicably believing it proved the opposite. (Or perhaps not so inexplicably; we’ll let the forensic psychiatrists deal with that.)

Then, while we were still grappling with that headspinning turn of events, Donald Trump stood on the south lawn of the White House in front of a dozen TV cameras and did it again, live, in front of the whole world, calling on both Ukraine and China to investigate the man he sees as his chief political rival, and alluding to the leverage he has incentivizing them to do so.

So that happened.

As Tim O’Brien writes in Bloomberg, “After the Mueller investigation, there’s no way Trump was unaware this violates the law.” Ignorance was never an excuse and is even less so now. But what that leaves us with is one of two equally appalling explanations:

1) Trump genuinely doesn’t understand the law, which means that he is mentally incompetent and the 25th Amendment ought to be invoked. (Don’t hold your breath.)

Or…

2) He simply believes he is above the law.

Either ought to be grounds for removal from office.

An insanity defense notwithstanding, at this point there is no longer any question about Trump’s guilt, or that the House of Representatives is going to impeach him for it. That debate is over. The only question is whether the Republican Party that has long since prostrated itself before this demagogue and human wrecking ball of all that we hold near and dear is going to do its duty, or act as his accomplice.

SHITBIRDS OF A FEATHER

At the same time that this scandal has become simpler, thanks to Trump’s own self-incrimination, it has also revealed itself to be far broader and more far reaching than almost anyone first realized—a neat trick.

Far from being just one phone call in which the notoriously impulsive Donald Trump characteristically went off script, we now understand that the Zelensky call was just one small episode in a wide and deep global campaign by Trump and his team—including the Secretary of State, the Attorney General, the Vice President, and various US ambassadors, among others—to enlist the aid of foreign powers to attempt to discredit the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election and smear his political opponents in 2020. As the always excellent David Graham writes: “This is no longer a controversy about a whistle-blower complaint, an American ally in eastern Europe, and the president. It is now an all-encompassing  scandal, involving many of the top officials in the Trump administration pressuring countries around the world, from Australia to Ukraine and China to Great Britain.”

But is anyone really surprised that Donald Trump would do this, or that the kind of people willing to work for Donald Trump would eagerly go along? The real shock is that it took this long for a scandal like this to come out.

We know that Trump believes he can do anything he wants, both by virtue of his office and simply because he’s a rich, white, obscenely entitled mofo who has gotten away with everything his entire life. (“When you’re a star they let you do it.”)

So far the Grand Old Party has agreed.

But now Trump’s sheer brazenness and world-beating narcissism have put Republicans in a tough spot, one that tests even their already well-established capacity for bootlicking, cowardice, and Orwellian disinformation.

Remember when rumors of the whistleblower allegations first broke and Republicans kept saying, “Whoa, whoa, you rabid Democrats! Let’s not rush to judgment. Let’s hear what Trump really did first, OK?” Well, now we’ve heard it, and what more, we’ve heard the President* himself cop to it multiple times—even brag about it. In the New Yorker, Susan Glasser writes:

Republicans had spent days denying what Trump had more or less just admitted to…..It was as though Richard Nixon in 1972 had gone out on the White House lawn and said, Yes, I authorized the Watergate break-in, and I’d do it again. It was as though Bill Clinton in 1998 had said, Yes, I lied under oath about my affair with Monica Lewinsky, and I’d do it again.

Even now, after it blew up in his face and prompted an impeachment inquiry, Trump still keeps pointing to the Zelensky readout as exoneration, which is truly disturbing regardless of whether you believe it’s deliberate disinformation or evidence of dementia. The live solicitation of interference from China was just another step down that road, albeit an unprecedented, jawdropping one.

So now the GOP is reduced to complaining about process…..a technique they excoriated in the Bush and Clinton years.

Or, alternatively, they can go todo loco.

Witness the epic “Meet the Press” meltdown of Senator Ron Johnson R-WI, who, like some of his colleagues, had initially expressed some tepid “discomfort” with Trump’s actions, only to face fury from the White House (we presume), driving him to go on national TV and behave like a rabid muskrat, spewing misdirection about Peter Strzok and conspiracy theories that came right out of Sean Hannity’s butthole, culminating in a furious, red-faced tirade that he doesn’t trust our own FBI and CIA. I suspect it will haunt Johnson forever.

It was one of the most incredible performances by a national politician that I can recall seeing, ending only when Chuck Todd motioned for Animal Control to come out and shoot the Senator with a tranquilizer dart.

This is what the Republican Party is reduced to in its desperate attempts to defend the indefensible.

GASLIGHTING FOR BEGINNERS

The standard GOP gaslighting on Ukrainegate is beautifully exemplified by the columnist Marc Thiessen, a regular contributor to the Washington Post and a living rebuttal to the canard that the media leans left. Thiessen writes: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking foreign heads of state or intelligence officials to cooperate with an official Justice Department investigation.”

True. If this were a legitimate investigation aimed at advancing US national interests, rather than an illegal personal crusade to benefit Donald J. Trump. The attempt to spin it as the former is at the heart of the Republican counter-strategy, but it doesn’t hold a thimbleful of water.

It’s hardly worth the figurative ink required to dismantle all the dishonesty in his statement, but just as an exercise:

The DOJ “investigation” that Bill Barr is heading—aimed at undermining the US Intelligence Community’s conclusion that Russian aided Trump in the 2016 election—is itself a partisan sham and abuse of power. Citing it as justification for Trump strongarming Kiev is a circular argument and master class in graft. Team Trump’s contention that its interest in Ukraine was and is an altruistic campaign against generic “corruption” is laughable, especially coming from the most corrupt presidency in modern US history. The only “corruption” Trump referred to in the Zelensky call was the fairy tale of Biden’s wrongdoing. (Even if one believes Hunter Biden was unethically trading on his father’s position, Joe Biden was in no way complicit in that…..and by the by, that is the entire stock-in-trade of the Trump children.) Only the willfully blind could fail to recognize Trump’s true motive as regards Ukraine—damaging a political rival, and using the full might of the US presidency to do so, which is the very epitome of the corruption in its own right.

Of course, it has grown tedious to point out that if Barack Obama had phoned a foreign leader and demanded an investigation of Tagg Romney while holding US military aid for ransom, he would already be the GOP poster child for a new version of “Strange Fruit,” covered by Kid Rock and Ted Nugent.

But Thiessen’s disgraceful apologia represents mainstream conservative thought in the age of Donald, where seldom is heard a discouraging word. Never, in fact.

To that end, I was admittedly shocked to see some Republicans, including those twin pillars of hypocrisy Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham (to the extent that a pillar can be spineless and flaccid) push back over Trump’s unconscionable betrayal of our Kurdish allies this week. Why the GOP is willing to risk incurring Trump’s wrath over that and not, say, over selling our country out to the highest bidder, remains a mystery. But no elected Republican, not even Mitt Romney, who is what passes for a GOP profile in courage these days (we’re grading on a sliding scale), has really stood up to the president in the way that his actions call for. And I am not confident that sufficient numbers will do so should it come down to an impeachment trial in the Senate.

(On the subject of Syria, and adding to the madness, at a time when Trump desperately needs the fealty of Senate Republicans, why did he choose this moment to piss off even Moscow Mitch and Leningrad Lindsey? More proof that he doesn’t think strategically at all, only impulsively, despite repeated efforts to credit him for such.)

But even this rare sighting of the elusive Republican vertebrate in the wild has a dark side, as noted by the New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie in what may have been the most incisive observation of the week. In addressing this question of why Republicans stick with Trump so submissively, the conventional wisdom is that it’s a Faustian bargain. But Bouie argues convincingly that it’s really something much simpler and uglier: they agree with him.

Trump has taken an ax to domestic spending programs for the poor—his Agriculture Department just proposed new cuts to food stamps; he signed a tax cut that funnels trillions to the highest earners; and he stacked the federal judiciary with right-wing ideologues. It’s hard to imagine a better outcome for a conservative politician.

Bouie points to the pushback on Syria as evidence that this narrative that the GOP fears the wrath of Trump and his base is wrong. They will in fact stand up to him when they wish….and not only on foreign policy but on tariffs and economic issues as well. So perhaps we should take those Republicans at their word when they say they don’t think blackmailing foreign powers for personal gain with US tax dollars is a problem.

As long as it’s a Republican who does it.

IN OTHER NEWS

There were so many other significant developments this week that if you went into a dentist appointment, five new scandals might have erupted while you were in the chair. (Now spit.)

  • More whistleblowers came forward, both from the Intelligence Community and—tantalizingly—the IRS.
  • Texts among US diplomats revealed the explicit quid pro quo the White House was seeking from Kiev, yet continues to deny. Trump’s assertions of innocence notwithstanding, he clearly knew—or at least his staff did—that what he was doing was not kosher. We know that not only because of the frantic reaction of his aides (who immediately hid the Zelensky transcript on a classified server) but also because of a text exchange made public week between career diplomat Bill Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, and US Ambassador to the EU, a Trump political appointee (and million dollar donor) named Gordon Sondland. After an aghast Taylor expressed his strong opposition to the idea of withholding military aid for partisan political reasons, Sondland—during a Rose Mary Woods-like five-hour gap—conferred personally with Donald Trump and was directed to reply with a laughably legalistic text falsely denying that any such quid pro quo was in play. (Why the Ambassador to the EU was involved in this at all is a separate question. But notably, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was copied on this texts, according to the assessment of Joel Rubin, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs in the Obama administration, speaking on MSNBC.
  • As if on cue, this week Ukraine also helpfully provided more evidence of that quid pro quo by opening an “audit” of Hunter Biden’s business transactions—precisely the sort of cooperation Trump had asked for.
  • And then just today the White House prevented Gordon Sondland from testifying before three House committees, which was probably not because they were worried he was going to exonerate Trump so much that it would make him blush.

Sounds like the actions of a perfectly innocent White House to me.

Capping all that, the White House sent the Speaker of the House a peevish letter saying it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry at all, citing nothing to support that outlandish position (but with paragraphs about how great the economy is doing, which sounded suspiciously like they were dictated by a certain someone).

The chief takeaway from all this is that we should not wait for the White House to comply with subpoenas and requests for documents as a prerequisite for moving forward with impeachment. We all know that the administration will never cooperate with the House no matter what the Speaker does to appease it. It’s Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown. Luckily, Nancy Pelosi is a lot smarter than good ol’ Charlie. The administration has made it very clear that it intends to flout the law, and stall, and try to run out the proverbial clock in hopes that the American people will get bored and distracted by something shiny, and Trump can move on to his next atrocity.

Let’s not play their game.

We already have enough evidence to bring articles of impeachment against Donald Trump on multiple counts. By all means we ought to aggressively continue to gather more evidence, and make our case to the American people, and rightly depict Trump’s obstruction of justice as more proof of his guilt and unfitness to serve. But we do not need Donald Trump to give us permission to move forward and prosecute him. He already stood on the south lawn and pulled out the murder weapon and waved it around for all to see.

LIMBO LOWER NOW

Trump may yet survive this scandal as he has survived untold previous scandals that would have been presidency-ending in any sane era. Then again he may not. Having sufficiently covered my bases, let me just say that right now it ain’t looking good for him. In a tenure riven with non-stop greasefires, he has never looked this panicked or terrified or erratic, which is saying something. So much for the pre-Ukrainegate theory that he wanted to be impeached, for the alleged political advantage that would supposedly accrue to him.

Susan Glasser notes that the number and hysteria-level of our mad king’s tweets have recently risen, suggesting he knows he’s in what Bush 41 once called, “deep doo-doo.” Upping the ante on his claim of being an “extremely stable genius” (itself a self-promotion from the earlier “very stable genius”), he last week referred to his own “great and unmatched wisdom.” We have also seen an uptick in the frequency of random capitalization, schoolyard namecalling, frantic calls for senators to be impeached (NB: they can’t be), references to witchhunts, fake news, and the rest of his greatest hits. With her typically Antarctic élan, Nancy Pelosi quipped, “Sometimes I think he is having a limbo contest with himself, to see how low he can go in his rhetoric. I think he was surprised that this happened, because he thinks he can do whatever he wants.”

In that regard the Barr-led campaign to discredit the Russia narrative is another own goal, like the release of the rough Zelensky transcript: a self-inflicted wound caused by this administration’s unfailing impulse for skullduggery. Did they really need to discredit Russian interference? Miraculously, Trump had already managed to dodge justice once, in the special counsel investigation. But greedhead that he is, he couldn’t be content with that. He simply could not live with the intelligence community’s conclusion that the Kremlin had interfered, nor accept the taint on his electoral victory, even though MAGA Nation really didn’t care at all and still doesn’t. It was all about Trump’s ego, which in this case, has severely damaged his political position when it didn’t have to.

Glasser again, on the ways in which this latest scandal has its roots in Russiagate:

The Mueller investigation, and Trump’s festering grievance about it, appears to have shaped his public persona more than any other event of his tenure. Trump publicly proclaimed victory with the report’s release, portraying it as “complete and total exoneration.” “I won,” he said, but Trump did not take the win. Instead, he launched his Attorney General, William Barr, on what we know now was an international quest to investigate the origins of the Mueller investigation, pressuring U.S. allies from Britain to Italy to Australia, and also Ukraine, to unearth information that undermined the Mueller probe’s credibility. Who knows what will come out next. The impeachment investigation has just begun, and although it is starting out as tightly focused on Ukraine, we have no real idea where it might end up. What we do know about Trump, though, is unlikely to change: the restraints on him are gone, and they are not coming back.

(Jeffrey Toobin has also written eloquently on how the two scandals are really one.)

POLICE ON MY BACK

On that count, let me close by addressing the notion that Trump is playing some sort of twelve-dimensional chess here.

As noted last week, many have suggested that Trump is trying to slip out of this latest noose by attempting to normalize his behavior: brazenly bragging about his crime, Nathan Jessup-like, as a way of tricking into the public into thinking he did nothing wrong. If he had, would he openly admit it like that? That would be crazy!!!

The answer, I suppose, is that he has gotten away with everything else, so at this point, why even bother mounting a defense? But as Hillary Clinton, tweeted, “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”

But behind the scenes, the administration and the GOP are certainly not behaving that way, but rather, pursuing the classic Nixonian strategy of stonewalling, defying subpoenas, ordering government officials not to testify before the House, making specious claims about executive privilege, propagating disinformation, bitch-squealing about Congressional bullying, and so forth. True commitment to Trump’s “say the quite part out loud” strategy would actually require the GOP to be even MORE brazen, which apparently it is reluctant to do. Because that is too batshit for everyone except Donald Trump.

Once again, I’m not saying Trump’s strategy won’t work. He may not be playing twelve-dimensional chess, or chess of any kind, or even Hungry Hungry Hippos; he seems to be simply reacting to questions shouted over the sound of Marine One in his usual manic, shoot-from-the-hip, transactional way. But the effect may be the same. If he does skate away yet again, it will be because his party has provided him cover and enabled that miscarriage of justice. In that case, as Uri Friedman wrote in The Atlantic: “Just like that, a democratic norm stretching back to the founding of the republic is collapsing before our eyes.”

In short, the President of the United States brazenly “colluded” with two foreign powers (to coin a term), publicly encouraging them to attack one of his domestic political opponents—the very thing the Founders most feared, and which they created the mechanism of impeachment to address. Yet the silence from the President’s party thus far has been deafening. Are we going to be a representative democracy ruled by law, or an autocracy led by a despot? Is the modern GOP really willing to burn the entire foundation of our republic to the ground in order to maintain its hold on power? (Rhetorical question. We know by now that they are.)

The modern Republican Party is about to decide just how savagely history will remember it. And if we as a nation allow them to get away with it, we deserve what we get.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump memorably bragged about the near-fanatic loyalty of his supporters, musing that could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any votes. Now we have a dead body on the corner of 5th Ave and 14th Street, and Trump standing over it with a smoking Smith & Wesson, bragging that he bagged the sonofabitch.

Anyone wanna call the cops?

*********

Photo: Getty Images