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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
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.