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…..

3 thoughts on “Of Nightmares and Strategy

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