Donald Trump is now only the third US president in 230 years to have been impeached, the first to suffer that humiliation in his first term, and the first to have it happen while he is running for re-election. And it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.
Trump may well go on to win a second term, which will be a sorry comment on the state of the American republic and the gullibility of the American electorate. If that happens, history will not look back kindly on our era, or on us. (We already look not so great having let him into the White House once.) Conversely, this episode may prove to be a mile marker on his well-deserved demise.
But to that point, I have been deeply dismayed at how much of the analysis of his impeachment has been focused on sheer gamesmanship, and whether Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats have played this well or badly, and what the impact will be on their collective political fortunes.
Really? How small. How shortsighted. How depressing.
The Democratic majority in the US House of Representatives just took on the somber and sorrowful duty of impeaching a US president for high crimes and misdemeanors, the evidence of which was so overwhelming that it wasn’t even a close call for anyone willing to look at that evidence objectively. (I realize that lets out the entire Republican Party.) The GOP has not substantively tried to deny it; in fact, the White House itself openly admitted to the offenses in a phone conversation readout that it unilaterally released. Trump’s own chief of staff bragged about it on national television. It is depressing of course that many of our fellow Americans—many of them US Congressmen and Senators—stubbornly refuse to admit that, either out of willful ignorance, regular ignorance, or craven Machiavellian cynicism. But it does not alter the facts.
Yet as E.J. Dionne observed in the Washington Post, when the articles of impeachment were unveiled last Tuesday, “a large share of the reporting and commentary was about the political risks facing Democrats for insisting on something that would once have been uncontroversial: It is a chilling threat to freedom and to democracy for the commander in chief to use his power to press a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.”
Last month a Monmouth University poll reported that 62% of Trump supporters said that they would support Donald Trump no matter what he does. Let that sink in a moment. Like religious fanatics, they self-report that there is NOTHING Trump could do that would make them turn on him. Not his famous hypothetical murdering of someone in plain sight on Fifth Avenue. Not outright bribery (which he copped to with Zelinskyy.) Not rape (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not treason (of which he has been credibly alleged). Not, presumably, giving the State of the Union address in blackface, or selling kiddie porn, or advocating lynching, none of which frankly would surprise me.
And apparently the GOP leadership agrees.
FOR THE DEFENSE
From the time the Ukraine scandal broke, the right wing has spent precious little time trying to defend Trump’s actions, fighting instead about “process”—always the sign of a weak hand. Those who even bothered to address the substance mostly argued some variation of the claim that the actions weren’t so bad and don’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses. (That claim is risible, of course. If extorting a foreign power to spread disinformation in an American election isn’t impeachable, nothing is.)
Others—incredibly—have gone further, parroting Trump’s own insane insistence that he did nothing wrong whatsoever, and indeed acted “perfectly.” That was the gist of GOP counsel Stephen Castor’s argument to the House Judiciary Committee, predicated on the absurd claim that ginning up a smear campaign against Joe Biden constitutes a legitimate anti-corruption effort on behalf of US national interests, and not merely to benefit Donald Trump’s own political future.
I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.
Another red herring: For weeks now I have read right wingers on the web refusing even to discuss Ukrainegate on the grounds that some mysterious and much bigger dirty bomb was about to drop that would shower the Democrats in feces. It now seems clear that they were referring to the DOJ IG report that came out last week. You may have noticed that it was disappointingly short on details of Hillary issuing secret orders to her cabal of Illuminati FBI agents, and long on facts that obliterated the right wing’s cherished myth of an ongoing Deep State coup. Not that Bill Barr would acknowledge that.
Yet another related argument we keep hearing—one that also tellingly avoids the substance of the charges against Trump—is that we ought not bother with an impeachment when we are less than a year away from an election in which the people can decide for themselves the president’s fitness to remain in office. Really? When the issue at hand is election interference itself? Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) succinctly summarized that argument as the equivalent of saying, “’Why not let him cheat just one more time? Why not let him have foreign help just one more time?'” Or as Neal Katyal put it, it’s like saying we ought to settle this dispute with a game of Monopoly, when the very crime of which Trump is accused is cheating on Monopoly.
The whole “let’s wait” argument is dishonest in the extreme, especially coming from Republicans, who damn sure would never let a Democrat slide because we were at the two minute warning. And—god forbid—should an opening on the Supreme Court pop up between now and November, don’t look for Mitch McConnell to argue that we ought to wait till after Election Day to fill it.
All this bullshit was on full display on national television today. I watched a lot of the House debate and it’s impossible to pick out which Republican congressmember was the most loathsome, so competitive was the field. It was a remarkable parade of dishonesty, distraction, and demagoguery, a Festival of Yelling White Dudes, many of whom seemed to be channeling their inner Brett Kavanaughs, having seen that that was a winning strategy, at least in appealing to an audience of one. (Not a few also engaged in juche-style adoration toward their Dear Leader, which he also eats up.) For a preview of how history will remember it, those Republicans would do well to examine how Nixon’s dead-end defenders are viewed today (or Joe McCarthy’s). And everything lives forever on the Internet.
But at the end of the day, here is the height of irony: Trump and his followers claim that with the impeachment, the Democrats are illegitimately interfering with the upcoming election, when in reality the whole reason for the impeachment is that Donald Trump was doing precisely that with his illegal pressure on Ukraine, which only the sadly deluded or the willfully dishonest can try to deny.
WALKING AND CHEWING GUM
I realize that from the start impeachment and the upcoming election have been inextricably connected. But the fixation on gamesmanship over principle is unhealthy to say the least.
I’ve heard the argument (from the left) that Trump is such an existential threat to our republic that his defeat at the polls must be prioritized over all else. Fair enough. Except that I’m not convinced that we will be facing a fair election in November. Is that preemptive, 2016-style Trumpian doubt-casting on the legitimacy of the vote, something I and many others decried when he regularly did it on the campaign trail against Hillary? Feel free to lob that allegation if you wish. But I would call it a well-founded fear, with lots of evidence to back it up, unlike Trump’s wildly unsubstantiated and dangerous claim. In any case, I’m certainly not willing to put all my eggs in that electoral basket when it comes to stopping that existential threat.
Moreover, I’ve argued before that the two are no mutually exclusive—as that argument presumes—but rather complementary. I don’t think impeachment is a losing strategy, politically speaking; on the contrary, a losing strategy is being so afraid of your criminal opponent that you are too meek even to stand up and call him out for his crimes.
Going into this process with the knowledge that Senate Republicans will almost surely refuse to convict, the Democratic Party has made the decision—correct in my view—that principle here demands impeachment even if it fails…..even if Trump gets to disingenuously wave acquittal as a banner of exoneration, as he did with Bill Barr’s distorted four-page non-summary of the 400-plus page Mueller report. It’s true that acquittal might look impressive to some undecided voters, but what would look even worse, IMHO, is handwringing by an insufficiently brave and bold Democratic Party that claims Trump is an unfit criminal pretender, but is unwilling to make that case in Congress as the Constitution demands.
(What worries me more is that if someone is still undecided about Trump at this point, they might be too stupid to be swayed by logic. In that regard, Team Trump has an edge for sure.)
Impeachment is a moral imperative. If Senate Republicans are willing to close ranks and say that the POTUS (at least a Republican POTUS) is above Congressional oversight, then they will have dealt a grievous blow to our representative democracy. But they must be forced to admit it publicly. I for one am not willing to let them get away with it unchallenged, without calling them out and insisting they stand up and demonstrate by a public show of hands if they are indeed that craven and dishonest. (Spoiler alert: they are.)
Will Trump go on to win in 2020? He might, but not because impeachment strengthened him. If he wins it will because of this cult-like support on the right, its willingness to game the system with black propaganda, foreign assistance, voter suppression, and—crucially—because our side didn’t make a sufficient argument for his wrongdoing and unfitness and for the appeal of our own candidate and platform by contrast. Impeachment is part of making that argument. When I see articles about how Trump is allegedly “winning” on impeachment despite the facts, or about how the Democrats are supposedly blowing it, or how Trump’s re-election is a lock, it makes me ill with its too-cool-for-school ennui. And I hear this cynical garbage not only from the right, as we would expect, but also from the center-left, and from ”Saturday Night Live.” In truth, as Democratic strategist Joel Payne recently told Chris Matthews, this impeachment is 20 points more popular right now than Bill Clinton’s ever was. Even Fox News shows fully 50% of voters in favor of impeachment and removal—not just impeachment, but impeachment AND removal. And I say again: that’s a poll from Fox News.
But even if I turn out to be wrong about the political implications (and I am sure that somewhere there may be perhaps one example of me being wrong), the bottom line is that Trump’s actions in Ukrainegate, and his brazen defiance of the US Constitution in obstructing the Congressional investigation thereof, have left us with no choice. We cannot ignore or excuse it. As Michael Luo writes in the New Yorker, “Failing to impeach Trump would have set a dangerous precedent—that Presidents can subvert American foreign policy for their own ends, without fear of consequences.” It arose in the first place after he was not held to account over Russiagate; even now, he continues to thumb his nose at the rule of law and behave like an absolute monarch to the throne born, as Rudy Giuliani goes gallivanting around Ukraine openly carrying on with the very behavior for which his master is being impeached. And it will only get worse if Trump skates yet again.
Yes, I fear what the country will look like if we are saddled with four more years of this. But not impeaching him would have been worse, would have emboldened him even more than acquittal, and would not have improved our electoral fortunes even a whit. Yeah, the GOP wouldn’t have been able to run on impeachment and rile up its base, but it would have just riled them up with something else. Do you doubt it? Appeasing bullies, avoiding conflict, and hoping that won’t get mad or madder than they already are is never a winning strategy.
CREEPY OLD GUY
Based on his record number of angry old man tweets last week, and his astonishing six-page rant at Nancy Pelosi that read like it was dictated by a deranged fifth grader, Trump is obviously mad as a wet hen about his impeachment, even as he claims unconvincingly that it’s helping him. It may indeed be helping him, in terms of fundraising and energizing his base, but he is still visibly furious about it because he knows what a humiliation it is. You’d think he’d be delighted that he’s basically about to get away with murder, again, but he clearly understands what a stain this is on his legacy, even if he’s acquitted. Conviction or no, it is the most serious possible black mark against a US president, and Trump knows that as of this morning the very first line of his obituary will definitely include the “I” word. (Speaking of which, can we hurry up with that please?)
Yet in another irony, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, et al are partially robbing Trump of even the consolation of a presumptive acquittal by brazenly announcing in advance that they intend to mount such a sham of a trial in the Senate that only the most slavering Trump disciple will accept its result as genuine exoneration.
McConnell kicked it off by going on “Hannity” and declaring that he is not going behave like the foreman of a jury—which is what he will be—but rather as an arm of the defense. Graham then weighed in by repeatedly saying he’d already made up his mind and didn’t even need to sit through a trial, or hear any evidence.
Neither senator’s position is particularly surprising, of course. As Jennifer Rubin wrote in a piece unimprovably titled “Don’t Worry, Sen. Graham. No One Thought You’d Be Fair”: “Amidst his boot-licking and willful ignorance of a ‘quid pro quo,’ Graham left little doubt that he had the slightest intention of doing his job as a juror.”
Once again, Graham’s is a rather different mindset than he had as one of Bill Clinton’s most aggressive prosecutors in 1999, when he said:
I have a duty far greater than just getting to the next election. Members of the Senate have said, “I understand everything there is about this case, and I won’t vote to impeach the president.” Please allow the facts to do the talking…. Don’t decide the case before the case’s end.
I know it’s become tedious to say, but let me say it again: Lindsey Graham might be the most loathsome, hypocritical, contemptible swamp creature in all of Washington DC, which is saying something, because the competition is world class. As the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus noted:
Fifteen current Republican senators served in the House or Senate during the Clinton impeachment. All but one of those—Sen. Susan Collins of Maine—voted either to impeach Clinton or to convict him and remove him from office. I’d challenge any of them to explain why they deemed Clinton’s behavior so bad and are so unmoved by Trump’s.
(Speaking of Leningrad Lindsey, I was recently appalled to learn that he and I were both stationed in Germany at the same time in the 1980s, he as an Air Force JAG officer at Rhein Main AFB in Frankfurt, me 35 klicks north as an Army infantry officer at a place called the Rock. I don’t recall ever seeing Lindsey on any of the many Friday nights I spent at the bar of the Rhein Main Officers Club. Perhaps he was busy contemplating how he could help the Russians bounce back from their impending defeat in the Cold War.)
So in a bitter irony, the words of McConnell, Graham, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP may prove to be self-destructive by giving the lie to even the illusion that Trump will be truly exonerated. Of course, Donald is going to claim that no matter what, and MAGA Nation will believe it. But it won’t help his case with any thinking Americans, to the extent that anyone cares about them anymore. And it won’t look good in the history books, which we know that the transactional Republicans don’t care about at all, except when it comes to removing references to evolution.
To state the bleeding obvious: If Trump is so innocent, why are his Republican pals so afraid to review any evidence?
The preemptive destruction of even the veneer of due process is all the more baffling when the GOP could easily put on the pretext of a fair trial and still carry the day. Are Republicans really that afraid of what will come out and what they will have to willfully deny in voting for acquittal? Or perhaps they just don’t give a fuck, so greedy and compacent and contemptuous have they become of even the trappings of democracy. To that end, the desire for a quick trial is not just a matter of downplaying the allegations and moving on (though it is more proof that impeachment truly does hurt Trump, even as the GOP tries to convince the DNC and America that it does just the opposite.) It is a further admission of Trump’s guilt.
As A.B. Stoddard writes in The Bulwark, “If Trump and Senate Republicans want to finish impeachment as quickly as possible, then they must believe that time is not on their side and that future developments are likely to cut against Trump’s position.”
I think that is safe to say.
Ironically, Trump—of course—wants a circus, because he is a sociopath who seems to genuinely believe that he has done no wrong here or anywhere else (see again The Letter), and cannot by definition, and that the Senate trial would be a great venue in which to smear Joe Biden with absolute lies. His lapdog Mr. Graham, the former prosecutor, admittedly got off a bon mot when he suggested that when someone has said out loud that they’re ready to acquit you (no matter what), you ought to get out of the way and let ‘em.
Trump wants to drag Joe and Hunter Biden and Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff into the Senate to testify? OK then, as Chuck Schumer rightly said, let’s also hear from Mulvaney and Pompeo and Pence and Bolton and Parnas and Giuliani.
Seeing as Senate Republicans have brazenly signaled that they intend to violate their oaths, shamelessly ignore the evidence, and protect Trump no matter what, movement is building to use that against them: that is, to call them out and refuse to allow them to get away with this criminal dereliction of duty. Per above, they would have done well to keep their traps shut and at least pretend to obey the law and act impartially, and then vote to give Cheetoh Benito his get-out-of-jail-free card. But a hazard of the Trump era is that these thugs have grown accustomed to announcing in advance that they are gonna rob a bank. And this time, the cops are waiting for them.
Lots of smart people, from Laurence Tribe to Charlie Sykes to Bill Kristol to John Dean (!!!!), have recently suggested that the Democrats need not accede to the GOP’s blunt announcement that it has no intention of holding a fair trial in the Senate. As Sykes writes: “There is no requirement that the House immediately send the articles of impeachment over to the senate. This is Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s final card.”
Tribe has been proposing as much even before Ukrainegate broke, back when we were mulling impeachment based on the Mueller report. His initial idea was that the House impeach Trump and never refer the articles to the Senate, thereby denying him the chance to wave the inevitable hyperpartisan acquittal as a flag of exoneration. Now the actions of McConnell, Graham, et al have give the Democrats justification for so doing, or some variation thereof. The new notion is to humbly insist that, gee, Republican Senators not behave like jurors in a mob trial bought and paid for by the Don, as they have bluntly announced they intend to do.
McConnell’s flag-planting in Camp Trump is already being used against him, and rightly so. After Schumer proposed calling Bolton, Mulvaney, et al as witnesses in the trial, Tribe tweeted: “If (McConnell) rejects these reasonable ground rules & insists on a non-trial, the House should consider treating that as a breach of the Senate’s oath & withholding the Articles until the Senate reconsiders.”
Writing in the Washington Post, he explained further:
Under the current circumstances, such a proceeding would fail to render a meaningful verdict of acquittal. It would also fail to inform the public, which has the right to know the truth about the conduct of its president….
Consider the case of a prosecutor armed with a grand jury indictment who learns that the fix is in and that the jury poised to consider the case is about to violate its oath to do impartial justice. In that situation, the prosecutor is under no affirmative legal obligation to go forward until the problem is cured and a fair trial possible. So, too, the House, whose historical role is to prosecute articles of impeachment in the Senate after exercising its “sole” power to impeach, is under no affirmative constitutional obligation to do so instantly. That is especially true when the majority leader has made clear that he is, for all practical purposes, a member of the defense team.
We are in Merrick Garland territory here, folks. This time, let’s play hardball like they do. Just because we have long assumed (correctly, it turns out) that the GOP intends to acquit Trump no matter what does not mean we should roll over and just let them do it without a fight…..without throwing up every procedural argument and obstacle the law allows…..without put a 10,000 kilowatt spotlight on their actions…..without making it clear that if they proceed with a kangaroo court (as they were fond of calling the House proceedings), they will in effect be just confirming Trump’s guilt.
As Senator Schumer said on TV, if the Republican majority holds a ridiculously speedy trial that dispenses with the charges without any serious consideration of them, the American people will rightly ask: “What are they hiding?” (At least some of them will ask that.)
Indeed, with their prejudicial statements beforehand, McConnell and Graham (and possibly others) may have compromised themselves as jurors and rendered it impossible to take the oath required of them by Rule XXV of the Senate Rules prior to participating in an impeachment trial: “I solemnly swear [or affirm, as the case may be] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [the person being impeached], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.
Will a Democratic Senator like Schumer or Kamala or Cory Booker or Liz Warren or Bernie move that McConnell (and Graham, and others similarly self-tainted) recuse himself? I certainly hope so. How will Chief Justice John Roberts respond? I don’t expect Mitch to do the right thing, or for Roberts to press it. But that spineless bastard should be forced to address the charge and publicly own his refusal to step aside. Red Hat Nation, of course, will find a way to cheer even that hypocrisy. But history will record it as yet another shameful moment by which the man from Kentucky will be cursed on into posterity.
MISS IT! NOONAN!
A note on language:
I hesitate to call Trump supporters “conservatives,” as they are anything but. But when I call them Republicans—which seems fair, given the party’s abject, bootlicking surrender to the man from Queens—I often get Trump people snorting to me that they are not registered Republicans, and in fact loathe the party establishment, followed by a laundry list of their complaints about the late John McCain. But since they now own the GOP, I suggest they get used to the elephantine label. Alternatively, I will settle for calling them “right wingers,” which is undeniable by any definition.
Whatever we agree to call them, it goes without saying that the formerly anti-Trump Republicans who have now obsequiously gone all in on Trump—Graham, Cruz, Paul, Pompeo, et al—are beneath contempt. (I think I saw Marco Rubio’s testicles on a milk carton.) But there is also a whole cowardly class of so-called conservatives who want to have it both ways, particularly in the punditocracy.
While any number of absolute cretins can regularly be seen on Fox News, occasionally a real piece of work shows up elsewhere. One such Republican apologist who appeared last week on MSNBC’s “Meet the Press Daily” with Chuck Todd, was conservative chattering head Danielle Pletka. I suppose she is what passes for a “reasonable” Republican in the current climate, which says a lot, but it was revolting to listen to her blithe assertion that the American people have decided Donald Trump is guilty of these crimes but that they’re not impeachable, and are bored with the details. (Implying that she feels likewise.) That is surely true of MAGA Nation, but it’s hardly true of the entire country. I have rarely heard a more cynical and dishonest generalization, one aimed at selling a false narrative right out of the GOP playbook.
It’s also amazing to see these allegedly respectable old school conservatives—not just screeching Breitbart brand hyenas—lamenting the “divisiveness” ripping out country apart. (It shouldn’t be amazing after decades of Republican hypocrisy, but it is.) Consider Peggy Noonan, a Reagan-era apparatchik who gets trotted out as we look back wistfully upon what now seems like an era of kinder and gentler reactionaryism. Noonan too recently appeared on “MTP Daily” to bemoan the fact that impeachment process has been so “partisan”—as if the real problem is the Democrats insisting on the rule of law, and not the GOP’s indefensible aiding and abetting of this criminal president. (Todd, as is his wont, didn’t push back, but joined in her pearl-clutching.)
And merrily we roll along with the toxic false equivalence that brought us to this pretty pass in the first place.
But I know this much: The more that Republicans claim that Democrats are damaging themselves with impeachment, the more I know we are on the right track.
FIGHT THE POWER
As I’ve argued before, the upcoming Senatorial ranks-closing around this criminal will be one of the blackest days in modern US history.
But no matter what ultimately happens, I am proud of the Democratic Party in this moment, which is not something I can always say. As Michael Luo again reports, “In the past few months, Democrats have satisfied their responsibilities, under the Constitution, to conduct a sober fact-finding inquiry, but their Republican counterparts have steadfastly refused to fulfill theirs.”
Congressional Democrats have stood up for the Constitution, the rule of law, and the idea of separation of powers and checks on balances on an wannabe despot. They have deployed the biggest and most powerful weapon in the constitutional arsenal in marking Trump with the scarlet letter “I.” It might cost them the 2020 presidential election, or it might win it for them. It might doom their chances to retake the Senate or it might bolster those chances. Let us hope it doesn’t cost us the House, even if certain individual Democratic members lose their seats in Trump-friendly districts for the sin of exercising integrity. But none of that is the broader point. However it shakes out, history will report that in this time of crisis, the Democratic Party showed some goddam backbone and was willing to stand up for principle.
Mayors are figuring unusually heavily in this election—from young Mr. Buttigieg, to old Mr. Bloomberg, to the batshit crazy Mr. Giuliani. But the one I have in mind at the moment is an honorary one, and a fictional one, Ossie Davis as “Da Mayor,” who told Mookie, and us: “Always do the right thing.”
Framegrab: Ossie Davis and Spike Lee in Do the Right Thing (1989), written, directed, and produced by Spike, shot by Ernest Dickerson.