Oy. Where to begin?
How about at the beginning, which is to say, at the end….
Barring a deus ex machina, we all pretty much know how this is going to play out. Senate Republicans began this trial by voting 53 to 47 along strict party lines (with one exception, 52 to 48) to block every Democratic motion concerning its conduct, eleven motions in all, including those to subpoena White House officials, demand Defense Department documents, forbid the selective submission of evidence, and everything else resembling the accoutrements of a fair trial as we understand the term.
Notwithstanding the revelations that recently emerged from behind John Bolton’s mustache, this week those same public servants (cough cough) are likely to do the same and block the calling of witnesses, to be followed by a swift acquittal of this cretinous pretender to the presidency. That will be a shameful and disgraceful day for the Republican Party, which no longer resembles anything like a legitimate political organization, but rather a cult of personality comprised of zombies, cynics, quislings, neo-fascists, and low-level mobsters living in terror of their deranged capo.
But it will also be a terrible and disgraceful day for our entire country, marking another steep step down into the abyss of full-blown autocracy.
Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but let’s not be naive. The conduct of the trial so far has been even more risible than most observers expected—which is saying something—and promises to be a dark harbinger of where it’s headed.
On the bright side, the 49ers are in the Super Bowl. Niners GM John Lynch deserves to be NFL Executive of the Year, don’t you think?
TRIAL AND TERROR
The Republicans are in a jawdroppingly frantic rush to shut their ears and eyes to the evidence and hurry through this trial to its inevitable verdict of Trump’s perfection as a president and Olympian model of a human being—nay, demigod.
We started with the farcical spectacle of Republican senators like McConnell and Graham swearing to be impartial after announcing that they had already made up their minds and consider the whole thing illegitimate. (Try that next time you have jury duty.) Moscow Mitch then sprung his rules for the trial on the world without any consultation with Chuck Schumer, a howling breach of the “Clinton rules” he dishonestly claimed to be following. No surprise, those rules are a mockery of justice, in keeping with McConnell’s other preemptive announcement that he—in effect, the foreman of a jury—was going to coordinate his every action and take all his directives from the accused.
Because that’s how trials usually work, right?
Soon after, McConnell further showed his hand with his request for Schumer to “stack his motions,” thus openly admitting that the Republican majority intended to vote down every single one without any serious consideration of any of them. Schumer, rightly sick of the majority leader’s games and wielding what little power he has, admirably refused, icily telling McConnell that “there will be a good number of votes.” By so doing, Chuck forced his Republican colleagues to announce one by one, over and over again, their shameless participation in this blatant obstruction of justice.
They didn’t seem too bothered about doing so.
The House managers went on to lay out a powerful, compelling, meticulously detailed case that was about as ironclad as it could be. The Trump defense team, by contrast, offered arguments filled with misdirection, ad hominem attacks, and outright lies. This is not a Rashomon matter of two equally valid interpretations of events, and saying otherwise is a perfect example of the dangerous false equivalence has bedeviled us throughout the Age of Trump. One side is arguing the facts, hard as those might be for right wing ears to hear. The other side is playing with its own feces.
The defense’s presentation was so weak that even a troglodyte like SCIF-storming Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida dismissed it as embarrassing even by the standards of an eighth grade book report. Doubt it? Witness Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow humiliating himself by publicly demonstrating that he doesn’t know what a FOIA lawsuit is.
Like many on the left, I marveled at the eloquent and powerful performance of lead House manager Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who has already cemented in his place in American history as a kind of present day Mr. Smith meets Atticus Finch meets Joe Welch. I know conservatives are eyerollingly sick of the praise heaped on Schiff from dazzled liberals, sneering that we don’t realize it matters not a whit to half of America. But for those who believe—not without good reason—that the Democratic case, no matter how well presented, is pointless given the GOP’s obvious intransigence, it’s worth noting that not a few of these Republican senators, who normally dine only on Fox News, were being confronted and forced to hear some of these facts for the first time. Even Republicans like the Oxford-educated Foghorn Leghorn impersonator Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana had to give Schiff props. Over on Fox itself, retired judge Andrew Napolitano also spoke the truth in lauding the strength of the Democratic case. (Watch for Andy to be looking for a new gig very soon.)
Another personal favorite of mine was the superb Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) quoting Biggie Smalls as he eviscerated Jay Sekulow’s snide question of why they were there are at all:
We are here, sir, because President Trump abused his power and then he tried to cover it up. And we are here, sir, to follow the facts, follow the law, be guided by the Constitution, and present the truth to the American people. That is why we are here, Mr. Sekulow.
And if you don’t know…..now you know.
(No doubt Ari Melber was as hard as a rock.)
But you really have to hear Mr. Jeffries say it: the printed word does not do it justice. How fitting in a moment when very little justice is being done.
Jerry Nadler had his moments too. Here’s Jennifer Rubin:
Nadler explained that it makes no sense to argue you can neither prosecute a sitting president nor remove him when he poses a danger to the country. “The Constitution is not a suicide pact. It does not leave us stuck with presidents who abuse their power in unforeseen ways that threaten our security and democracy,” he said, invoking the famous phrase uttered by the late Justice Robert H. Jackson. Nadler added dryly, “Until recently, it did not occur to me that our president would call a foreign leader and demand a sham investigation meant to kneecap his political opponents, all in exchange for releasing vital military aid that the president was already required by law to provide.”
The Democrats’ use of multimedia was similarly inspired, particularly the damning clips from the not-so-distant past of Lindsey Graham and fame whore/serial scumbag defender Alan Dershowitz, both vehemently arguing then the exact opposite of what they are arguing equally vehemently now.
Memo to boomers: on the Internet, everything lives forever.
HOW DARE THEE!
So far the Republicans’ unwillingness to do their constitutional duty has been shocking in its sheer brazenness. We have seen them nodding off, doing crossword puzzles, ducking out for extended “bathroom breaks,” and in the case of Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), not only reading a book from the right wing bestseller list during the trial, but even nipping over to give an interview to Fox News while she was supposed to be seated in the Senate listening to testimony. Why John Roberts didn’t complain about that I don’t know.
As Chris Hayes put it on MSNBC (and on Twitter), I’m sorry that these Republican senators are so inconvenienced by being asked to do their goddam job. (Profanity mine.)
Ted Cruz apparently thinks this whole thing is so hilarious that he made a joke about a drinking game. I’m glad he’s enjoying himself, but I would humbly suggest that the people of Texas ask themselves whether they want a man with so little regard for the gravity of these proceedings representing them in the United States Senate. As if that is Ted’s only flaw.
Meanwhile, those who were paying attention got their skivvies in a bunch over precisely the wrong things. The odious Susan Collins was so aghast at Jerry Nadler‘s verbiage that she had to pass a note to Chief Justice Roberts, middle school style. (“I like you…..do you like me?”) So what exactly did Nadler say that so offended Susan and prompted her to whip out her quill and write to the grand poobah of the United States Supreme Court? This:
NADLER: So far, I’m sad to say, I see a lot of senators voting for a coverup, voting to deny witnesses—an absolutely indefensible vote, obviously a treacherous vote. Either you want the truth, and you must permit the witnesses, or you want a shameful coverup. History will judge and so will the electorate.
He clearly hit a nerve. But the fact is, unless you want to quibble over whether by “treacherous” he literally meant “guilty of treason” or merely “fraught,” every single thing Nadler said was 100% correct. That is what so enraged the Republicans.
UCLA law professor Jonathan Zasloff writes:
(Collins) wasn’t stunned by Pat Cipollone’s lying about the House impeachment proceedings. She wasn’t stunned by Jay Sekulow mendaciously accusing Val Demings about “lawyer lawsuits.” She wasn’t stunned by #MoscowMitch putting on a show trial. But when Jerry Nadler pointed out accurately that the Senate could be an accomplice to cover-up, THEN she fell on her fainting couch.
She is really a complete fraud. But you knew that.
Collins is emblematic of the haughty attitude Senate Republicans, who have made a histrionic Sarah Bernhardt-like spectacle of how offended they are at the mere suggestion that maybe, just maybe they’ve been letting a con man-cum-wannabe dictator run roughshod over them. They damn near have the vapors! How we got to the point where the fragile feelings of our senators is more important than their duty to the Constitution, I don’t know. (Snowflakes.) Their offense-taking is ridiculous, of course, but nevertheless may provide enough of a handhold for them as they seek a rationalization, any rationalization at all, for further protecting this asshole.
More to the point, for Roberts to act on Collins’s complaint and rebuke Nadler (and Jay Sekulow for his angry reply) speaks to the cruel hoax at the heart of this pitiful excuse for a trial. Much like our eggshell-skinned senators, what does it say that the lone moment that stirs the presiding judge to umbrage is when one of the prosecutors dares speak the plain truth?
The author Steven Beschloss notes that the demand for “civility” is often a weapon deployed by the powerful to control and suppress those who dare question their rule, the American civil rights movement being a prime example:
Civility deployed this way is not about improving the quality of our body politic and public discourse, but aimed at keeping critics quiet.
It is worth noting that Trump, throughout his career, has exploited the civil process of US courts and the general civility of those who refuse to assume the worst. The societal expectation of civility (and the disbelief toward the utter lack of it) has made it easier for him to get away with so much—tearing apart migrant families and losing track of the children’s whereabouts, for example, or covering for Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman and the Saudis after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi….
But if you believe your house is on fire and your family faces death and destruction, is it appropriate to engage in pleasant and polite tones when speaking to the alleged arsonist and his accomplices? Is that not the time to speak and act with clarity to spur action and put out the fire?
Speaking of the Chief Justice, in a piece titled “John Roberts Comes Face to Face with the Mess He Made,” Dana Milbank notes the bitter irony that Roberts should be forced to sit almost powerlessly and watch this charade:
Roberts’s captivity is entirely fitting: He is forced to witness, with his own eyes, the mess he and his colleagues on the Supreme Court have made of the US political system. As representatives of all three branches of government attend this unhappy family reunion, the living consequences of the Roberts Court’s decisions, and their corrosive effect on democracy, are plain to see…..
Now, we are in a crisis of democratic legitimacy: A president who has plainly abused his office and broken the law, a legislature too paralyzed to do anything about it—and a chief justice coming face to face with the system he broke.
But Roberts is not as powerless as he has chosen to be, which makes him not merely a witness to this travesty but a willing accomplice to it. Roberts’ only substantive act so far has been that scolding of “both sides“ (each of which features some very fine people, I’m sure). Meanwhile, he didn’t say boo when the Republicans spewed outright lies, or when Marsha Blackburn ran over to do an interview on Fox, or any other time. Ruth Marcus has written that he is doing the right thing on that first point, and that senators are to be smart enough to decide for themselves what is true and untrue. Fair enough, though she has more faith in the collective intelligence and integrity of the US Senate than I do. However, many others have noted that Roberts has in effect put his thumb on the scale on behalf of his fellow Republicans with his inaction, and further, by loaning the majesty and imprimatur of the Supreme Court to this laughable show trial without complaint.
For a man who is reportedly so concerned with his legacy, this performance may not go down into posterity very well. Marcus ends her piece applauding Roberts’ discretion with a reference to the Chief Justice in Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial, the unfortunately named Salmon Chase, who was openly in Johnson’s pocket, and how unseemly that was. No doubt. But the true analogy here is with McConnell’s GOP caucus, which in this case is the party brazenly league with the accused. Roberts’ failure to account for that in any appreciable way is undeniable, and represents his real culpability, and his real kinship with his 19th century predecessor.
Should this pattern continue, rather than being remembered as an honest broker, or an umpire who just called balls and strikes, as SCOTUS nominees like to portray themselves during their confirmation hearings (exception: Brett Kavanaugh), Roberts—contra Schiff—may well be remembered as a craven collaborator in this farce.
JOHN BOLTON’S APACHE DANCE
So all in all it was a helluva Week 1.
And then came Mr. Bolton.
Word of what is in John Bolton’s soon-to-be published kiss-and-tell memoir, uncovered and printed by the New York Times Sunday afternoon, has thrown a juicy plot twist into this otherwise predictable story. It was certainly a strategic leak, and its timing—smack in the middle of the White House’s presentation of its defense (such as it is) and ahead of a vote on hearing from witnesses—was impeccable.
For those Trumpkins who are furious about that, please note that Bolton’s book leaked only because the White House itself recklessly made multiple copies of the single advance manuscript it was given. (D’oh!) Even better, the book apparently is called The Room Where It Happened, raising the unlikely possibility that John might rival Ari and Hakeem as a hip hop aficionado.
In any event, the man is clearly not throwing away his shot.
The account of events in Bolton’s manuscript obliterates a chief pillar of the White House defense, implicates multiple administration officials as well as Trump himself in the illegal withholding of aid to Kyiv, and fills in several other holes in the Ukrainian whodunit. For Republican senators to now continue to claim that there is no need to hear from this man, or from any other witnesses, will be a Herculean task of denial and dishonesty, not that that aren’t up to it. Dozens of them will continue to cling to that absurd and shameful position, but going forward it will be much harder for the handful who have been on the fence—Romney, Murkowski, Portman, Collins, et al—to remain perched there. Romney has already stated outright that he supports a subpoena for the former National Security Advisor-turned-coldblooded political assassin, for which he inevitably has earned the ire of some of his more vile GOP colleagues.
As a New York Times editorial noted, Bolton’s detailed description of the Ukrainegate mess—a “drug deal,” in his words—and Trump’s centrality to it not only rattles the Republican defense, but throws a glaring 10,000 kW Klieg light on the hypocrisy of his Senate defenders……like—surprise!—a certain someone from the Palmetto State:
The most galling part is that Republicans have already admitted how bad the president’s behavior was. Back in September, Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican and one of Mr. Trump’s staunchest defenders, said: “What would’ve been wrong is if the president had suggested to the Ukrainian government that if you don’t do what I want you to do regarding the Bidens, we’re not going to give you the aid. That was the accusation; that did not remotely happen.”
Except that it did, as Mr. Bolton is apparently willing to say under oath.
Bolton is an unlikely hero in this increasingly Shakespearean saga. Let’s leave aside for now his long history as a chickenhawk, a rabid jingoist, and an advocate for aggressive US military intervention almost everywhere on Earth. His bellicosity was a perfect fit in this idiotic administration, but also at odds with its America Firstism (an already pre-existing contradiction in Trumpworld of which Bolton was merely the most extreme manifestation). He and Trump were destined to clash, and they did, and John left—“I quit, no you’re fired” style—swearing vengeance.
Of course, that very hawkishness is precisely what makes Bolton such an especially credible witness for conservative viewers, and such an existential threat to Trump. John Kelly’s endorsement of Bolton this afternoon suggests that a revenge of the Deep State might be building. Ironically, despite the Fox News conspiracy mongering, there was no such cabal until Trump alienated the entire bureaucratic class. Now his habitual mistreatment of his top staff is karmically coming back to bite him in his big fat white ass.
Could there be a more fitting role for a man whose whole brand is the love of dropping bombs?
The coy, will-he-or-won’t-he of Bolton’s testimony has been a bit of a farce within this larger farce. If he wanted to take revenge on Trump—or, less plausibly, act on principle and just do the right thing—he could have done so at any time. He was under no legal obligation to keep silent. He could have volunteered to testify before the House during its impeachment proceedings. He could have held a press conference. For his lawyers to announce, as they did on January 6th, that he would obey a Senate subpoena, if issued, was welcome, but also a bit frustrating and disingenuous.
Obviously, one reason he has kept quiet until now is that he wants to drive up interest in (and sales of) his forthcoming book. In noting that profit motive, it must be said, Team Trump is correct. But Old Testament-style vengeance, even more than love of filthy lucre, seems to be the motivating force here. In any event, Bolton’s self-aggrandizement does not change the substance of what he has to say in the slightest, nor its import. He would hardly be the first lowlife gangster to turn on his former family and aid the prosecution and the public it serves, whatever his motives.
In purely practical terms, a live TV appearance before the Senate would likely be the best advertising for his book for which John Bolton and his publishers could ever hope. Graeme Wood of the Atlantic writes that Bolton is an ice cold motherfucker who has patiently bided his time, waiting for the moment when he can do maximum damage to Trump, while still maintaining his right wing cred, with an eye on his position in the post-Trumpian Republican world, should one ever come to be.
OK with me. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and if Bolton’s bruised ego causes him to become an improbable John Dean and bring Trump down, God bless him. We can return to enmity another day.
One last note:
Reportedly, several GOP senators are furious with the White House, having now learned that it has known the contents of Bolton’s book since late December, and put them in this extremely awkward position. And it gets worse. At the time of the January 3rd drone strike on Qasem Suleimani, I was among many to half-joke that Trump was trying to buy Bolton’s silence with this high-risk step toward Johnny’s longtime dream of a shooting war with Iran. (“Might Trump even have privately offered to start that war in exchange for Bolton’s cooperation? Does Brett Kavanaugh like beer?”) Now we find that that is not such a joke after all. Laurence Tribe notes that the White House was given its advance copy of Bolton’s book on December 30, and killed Suleimani three days later.
Just in case you thought there was anything that was beneath this insane clown president and his grotesque collective of business-suited henchmen.
NOT NOW JOHN
Bolton’s bombshell may or may not force the Senate to hear from witnesses. Even in the wake of these revelations, I would not be at all surprised to see the GOP stick to its “move along, folks, nothing to see here” stance. In fact, they might need to dig in even further, given the growing threat. Going on four years now, I have not yet overestimated their venality.
For the time being the GOP remains sickeningly servile to the monstrous leader with whom it has made its Faustian bargain. Trump’s alleged comment that any Republican who votes against him will have his or her “head on a pike” (you know, the way the accused talks to a jury?) sure rings true, despite the inevitable White House denials. I’m sure Donald is privately proud of it and how well it’s worked. This is the language of a mob boss, as many have noted. To watch the Republican senators tremble in such fear of this has-been game show host is appalling to behold. Does not one of them have a single working vertebra?
We are about to find out.
In part two of this essay, we’ll look at what effect the Bolton Bombshell is likely to have, the GOP’s flimsy defense of Trump, and gaze into the crystal ball to imagine what the post-Trump world might look like, should it ever arrive…..
Photo: Evan Vucci/AP Images