Travesty in Progress: Part 2

Travesty 2 copy

Do you think Donald Trump is sleeping at all?

Of course not.

Do you think he’s able to concentrate on matters of state (just kidding!), or his golf game, or grabbing pussy, or squeezing pennies out of the gnarled hands of destitute old age pensioners who are behind on their rent, or any of the other things he loves to do?

Look at his Twitter feed. He is consumed night and day with his impeachment, a fuming maniac wandering the halls of the West Wing in an enraged state that would make Nixon look like the Buddha. Even I am not that obsessed with the impeachment, contrary to the impression you might get from the steady flow of these essays.

Very weird behavior for a guy who is guaranteed to beat the rap.

In fact, the thought of a permanently apoplectic, haunted Trump is about the only part of this whole horrific affair that gives me any pleasure.

DON’T WAIT, CALL EIGHT

At the end of last week, prior to the beginning of the bizarre and antiquated ceremony of written questions, the White House lawyers presented their defense of the president, such as it was. Tellingly, for their leadoff on Friday they used only two of their available eight hours, which speaks to the fact that they really have no credible case to make.

WBUR’s Steve Almond writes:

McConnell, and his merry band of quislings, know that Trump is guilty. That’s why they want this proceeding over as quickly as possible. To call it a “trial,” as I’ve argued, is disinformation. This is a show trial, pure and simple, in which Republicans’ stated goal is to exonerate the defendant.

The House managers prosecuting the articles of impeachment against Trump— charging that he abused the power of the presidency to cheat in the 2020 election, then obstructed Congress’s investigation of the same—are engaged in, or are attempting to engage in, an actual trial.

You know: evidence, witnesses, facts.

The president’s defense team is performing for Fox News and other conservative media outlets. There is no discussion of evidence, witnesses or facts, just a recitation of blustery talking points, grade-school deflections, legalistic doublespeak and Trumpian conspiracies….

It is even more telling that the defense has not even bothered to contest the facts that the Democrats laid out. It wasn’t that long ago that many people thought they would make the argument the Trump’s behavior was wrong but not impeachable. That’s a position with which I strongly disagree, but at least it would have made some sense legally speaking. But of course the GOP can’t do that, because that is not what Trump demands. Instead, Republicans have saluted, barked “Three bags full!”, and gone all in with Trump’s pathological insistence that he did nothing wrong whatsoever, that his actions were completely within his authority, and that his behavior was “perfect.” (Pope Francis, white courtesy phone).

This is madness, of course, and Adam Schiff  & Co. beautifully explained why. It is an insane, outrageous, and specious claim that only the most Kool-Aid drunk of these Republican senators could possibly believe. The other, more conniving ones are engaging in an absolutely nihilistic charade, which is worse. (Though not as scary.) Yet that is the argument that Trump’s lawyers—Sekulow, Cipolline, Philbin, Bondi, Starr, and Dershowitz above all—are making. No thinking person can possibly be convinced by it, but then again, that description lets out all of Trump’s followers and the entire leadership of the Republican Party.

A key Republican defense is that Trump did nothing wrong because he was legitimately fighting corruption in Ukraine. As I’ve written in previous blog posts, this is risible. But no lie, no fairytale, no fish story is too outrageous for MAGA Nation to clutch to its collective bosom and defend to its dying breath, which can’t come too soon, if you ask me. (I refer to the movement of course, not any individual humans. Like Nancy Pelosi, I love all people, and I’m not even Catholic.)

But all you really need to understand in order to obliterate that defense is that Trump and his people actively tried to cover up his actions….frantically so, in fact. At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, if he did nothing wrong and everything is above board, why so desperate the need to hide it?

Another outrageous howler—and one that totally elides the substance of the charges—is the contention that these impeachment proceedings overturn the last election. Needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth. Impeachment is a mechanism built into United States Constitution by our Founders for this very purpose, that of removing a criminally unfit president. For the GOP to ignore that—and worse, deny it—and claim instead that this trial is some sort of coup is dishonesty of the worst sort. I know that’s not surprising in the least, coming from these swine.

But if the Founders devised impeachment as the constitutional remedy for a cancerous presidency, this one is like getting chemotherapy from William S. Burroughs’ Dr. Benway.

It is also the height of irony that Republicans go on and on about the Democrats trying to “steal” an election when that is the very thing that Trump—with their help—is on trial for, and worse, continues to be engaged in even as we speak. But then again, as I like to say, that is Fascism 101: accuse your enemies of your own crimes.

The White House defense team has also screamed that that the House inquiry was incomplete, unfair, didn’t call the right witnesses, and didn’t offer the administration a chance to make its case. That’s the same House inquiry that the White House flatly refused to cooperate with, blocked the appearance of witnesses at, defied subpoenas from, and otherwise obstructed to an extent that would have made Bob Haldeman blanch. They further claim that since the House “didn’t do its job,” there’s no reason for the Senate to do so now.

Is anyone fooled by this whose brain is not rotting from the red dye in their Chinese-made MAGA hat seeping into their gray matter?

Catch Pat Philbin next month in a performance of Kafka’s “The Trial” at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theater in Jupiter, FL.

DREAM TEAM

Just having Alan Dershowitz on your legal team looks bad, as SNL noted with the return of the great Jon Lovitz. Even so, Dershowitz’s much ballyhooed appearance proved one of the week’s more insane moments, as he argued that, since all politicians believe their election—and re-election—is always in the public interest, Trump’s shakedown of Kyiv is perfectly acceptable. In fact, anything they want to define as “in the public interest” justifies anything at all they want to do. It was the ultimate manifestation of Nixon’s famous statement to David Frost, that “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” (Not to mention the thinking of a certain French monarch.) In short, it is a rejection of democracy full stop in favor of rule by divine right.

Because that’s what America has been all about since 1776, right?

But it was also Dersh being too clever by half, with a thought experiment that he clearly believed was intellectually bold, but actually just made him sound like a lunatic and brought down an avalanche of ridicule. It is destined to be a sad coda to his already sordid history of defending wife murderers and pedophiles, if that is possible.

Ken Starr, meanwhile, looked like he was acting in Pirandello play, so absurd was his outrage at the very idea of impeaching a president! As Ben Wittes quipped, quoting a colleague, “Does Ken Starr know he’s Ken Starr?”

Here’s Susan Glasser on Starr, a man who, after giving us Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress, was fired as president of Baylor University for failing to properly handle a campus-wide sexual assault scandal:

Certainly, it was a bizarre spectacle: the man who brought us the last impeachment of a President lecturing the Senate on the dangerous evils of impeachment.

I’m old enough to remember when, in 1998, Starr produced the most X-rated document ever to be printed under congressional seal, in service of lobbying for an impeachment. The document, which will forever be known as the Starr report, detailed Bill Clinton’s Oval Office trysts in painfully graphic detail. (Google “Starr report” and “cigar” if you don’t remember.) Now, in 2020, the author of that report is acting as the sanctimonious guardian of congressional dignity, lecturing us all on the floor of the Senate about the unfair, improper charges against Donald Trump? Within seconds of opening his mouth on the Senate floor, Starr had his liberal critics—and lots of non-liberals, too—sputtering with outrage.

In his remarks as a member of Trump’s legal team, Starr inveighed against what he called the “Age of Impeachment,” saying that it is happening “too frequently” and is “inherently destabilizing” and “acrimonious.” He reserved particularly scathing words for the “runaway House” and its conduct during Trump’s impeachment, which he called “dripping with fundamental process violations.” Starr seemed especially upset about the partisan nature of the Trump proceedings by the Democratic-controlled House. “Like war, impeachment is hell,” he said. Remember, this is the man who advocated for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, by a Republican-controlled House, for lying under oath about an extramarital affair. Irony is dead. Very, very dead.

With all due respect to Dershowitz, Starr, Dewey, Cheatem & Howe LLP, Trump would be in infinitely better hands with Cellino & Barnes. But that doesn’t mean he won’t still win, because Senate Republicans have made it clear that they are going to close ranks and protect him no matter what his legal reps do or fail to do.

BIDEN MY TIME

On MSNBC Brian Williams quipped that the White House lawyers made a helluva case for impeaching Hunter Biden.

Given the way Bill Barr functions like Tom Hagen to Trump’s Don Corleone, you can bet that if Hunter had done anything even remotely illegal he would already be strapped to a backboard a la Hannibal Lecter and on his way to the Supermax federal prison in Florence, CO. (Or more likely, left a free man for now, the better to serve as a whipping boy during the campaign, as the target of a lengthy and drawn-out criminal prosecution that would play out till November. “Lock him up!”)

Moreover, it almost doesn’t bear repeating that when it comes to trading on a powerful parent, Hunter Biden is a piker compared to the Trump kids, which makes Donald’s focus on him both the height of chutzpah and a measure of his own malignantly narcissistic sociopathology, characterized by a world-beating sense of entitlement and inability to recognize his own hypocrisy.

Meanwhile, we ought not to forget that, notwithstanding the fact that he is being impeached, in many ways Trump’s entire Ukraine scam has worked beautifully, as here we are talking about corruption and Joe Biden.

REVENGE OF THE MAD BOMBER

So to what extent has Bolton’s bombshell altered the calculus of all this? Five days in now, we are getting a picture.

Clearly, it’s mixed.

Bolton has undoubtedly put pressure on the GOP and cast a glaring light on the fundamental dishonesty of the Senate trial. As I wrote earlier this week, I deeply dislike the man on ideological grounds, but I have to admire his tradecraft in doing as much damage to Trump as he could possibly do, even if it does not ultimately lead to his eviction from Pennsylvania Avenue.

In the New Yorker, John Cassidy writes:

Oh, to be a fly on the wall when Pat Cipollone, the lead member of Trump’s legal team, learned about the Times scoop. Rather than arguing that their client’s misdeeds didn’t rise to the level of impeachable offenses, he and his colleagues have, with straight faces, echoed the President’s claim that he didn’t demand a quid pro quo from Ukraine and, indeed, did nothing wrong at all. They’ve also argued that there is no firsthand evidence to show that he did.

Bolton has now blown that defense out of the water, giving Adam Schiff the priceless opportunity to play humiliating clips of Cipolline and Sekulow themselves making that now-debunked argument in the Senate last week. It’s not a good look for the accused when the prosecution is able to use his own lawyers’ words against him.

(Schiff also made the “imagine if Obama” argument, a staple of progressive conversation for the past three years. It was a joy to hear it on the floor of the Senate. When Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz then foolishly submitted a written question that sought to “gotcha!” him, Schiff deftly turned their disingenuous query and its skewed premise on its head and beat them to a bloody pulp with it, metaphorically speaking.)

What’s even more headspinning is that the White House has had Bolton’s book since December 30…..meaning Trump knew his former NSA intended to expose that lie. Yet he and his team still brazenly made this argument, a measure of the contempt they have for the entire impeachment process, and the rule of law full stop, not to mention their cocksure confidence of how tightly they have the Republican Party by the short hairs.

Cassidy goes on to describe the rock and a hard place between which JB has stuck his own party:

To be sure, there isn’t much more to be said about Trump’s perfidy, and, in the grand scheme of things, even the spectacle of Bolton providing a firsthand account of the President’s lying and venality may not do him much further damage. We all recall his quote about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Many of his supporters revel in his status as a Washington pariah. But the former national-security adviser showing up on Capitol Hill and telling his damaging tale (evidently, the Ukraine material isn’t the only revelation in Bolton’s book) would certainly reflect badly on the Republicans who tried to prevent him from appearing. These senators already look like patsies and enablers. If Bolton repeated what is reportedly in the book for all the world to see and hear, it would make them look like blithering idiots as well. Who else would have agreed to countenance Trump’s preposterous defense—that his real concern was corruption inside Ukraine?

Well put. It’s not hard to understand why it would be awful for the GOP if Bolton were to testify.

But of course, here’s the kicker: if Senate Republicans block him from testifying, they’ll look even worse. As Laurence Tribe noted, the GOP position boils down to “Trump didn’t do what Bolton said, but we don’t wanna hear from Bolton.” Or as Philip Bump writes in the WaPo, “Trump’s effort to block Bolton’s testimony makes little sense—unless he’s guilty.” Could it be any simpler?

Jonathan Chait, in New York magazine:

Initially, even Trump’s staunchest supporters conceded that pressuring Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals would be, if true, unacceptable. (Lindsey Graham: “very disturbing”; Steve Doocy: “off-the-rails-wrong.”) As evidence of guilt accumulated, their denial that this unacceptable conduct took place narrowed to a tiny, highly specific claim: No witness testified that Trump personally ordered them to carry out a quid pro quo.

But now Bolton has done precisely that, which, Chait argues, is why the GOP has fallen back to its Masada-like, die-in-place Dershowitzean position of “So what?”

So in many ways, Bolton’s revelations have not changed the game much at all, a testament to just how debased and desiccated the Republican Party has become, and just how pathetic its fealty to Donald J. Trump.

JUST THE FACTS (NOT)

The majority of Senate Republicans have already announced that they intend to pretend John Bolton and The Room Where It Happened don’t exist. That strikes me as a childish case of wishful thinking and short term gratification, but whatever. It remains to be seen if Romney and three others will override them. (But Cory Gardner of Colorado, apparently, ain’t gonna be one of them. Good luck looking for a new job come the morning of November 4, Cory.)

Here’s Susan Glasser again, on how the GOP has turned goalpost-moving into an art form:

At any other moment in Washington in my lifetime, I would have predicted with absolute confidence that the Bolton revelation would force Republican senators to switch their position and support witnesses. And not just a few, but almost all of them. But this is now, and the unthinkable and inconceivable have become increasingly routine. Here it was, the proverbial smoking gun, right in the middle of the trial, crucial evidence that Trump, his advisers, his lawyers, and his enablers on Capitol Hill knew about and were trying to suppress. Just last week, Trump’s legal team told senators that “not a single witness with actual knowledge ever testified that the President suggested any connection between announcing investigations and security assistance”…..

But we have had so many smoking-gun moments in the last few years. This is the post–“Access Hollywood” tape GOP, which elected as President of the United States a man who bragged of grabbing women by their genitals on tape, just a few weeks after the recording came to light. In the Ukraine scandal, we have seen this process repeat itself. Facts emerge that show the President’s actions to be inappropriate, outrageous, and clearly, straightforwardly wrong. At first, even Republicans on the Hill seem to waver. But again and again and again they find a way to accommodate themselves to the unpleasant new information, to rationalize and to justify….

The post-Bolton-bombshell Republican Party will be largely the same as the pre-Bolton-bombshell Republican Party.

Even if we do get the four necessary Republican votes to compel witnesses, and even if Bolton and others testify and evidence is aired, the idea that the Republican majority might actually convict Trump is like betting on the Washington Generals to beat the Globetrotters.

But here’s the thing:

Counter-intuitively, suppressing the facts in order to acquit Trump is not the formulation here, but rather, quite the opposite. The acquittal is all but a foregone conclusion. The GOP’s real concern is hurrying to that conclusion in order to avoid the further airing of facts.

They know that with each passing day more and more (and more and more damning) evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing will come out. That is the real threat to the party—that the public will hear that evidence, and the unavoidable recognition of Trump’s criminality and unfitness will chip away at GOP support going into November 2020. The steady drip drip drip of revelations of the complicity of various other Republican politicians in the Ukraine scheme—Pence, Pompeo, Barr, Nunes, Mulvaney, Ron Johnson, and others—only turbocharges their desperation. How far and deep and it goes we don’t know….and they don’t want us to.

Therefore the Republican Party will do anything to avoid that turn of events. Even the danger of public backlash at an obvious coverup is less worrying to them than letting the truth be aired, and the backlash that would entail.

The author Michael Gruber has often noted that the Republican Party is behaving as if it will never have to face a fair election again. That may very well be its intention. The Republican embrace of the unitary executive theory only makes sense for them if they can keep Republican presidents in power.

So do these self-evident GOP fears of public backlash contradict Gruber’s theory of Republican confidence in one-party rule?

On the contrary. They bolster it.

In an autocracy, the ruling party’s grip on power is dependent on maintaining control of the narrative. The removal of legitimate popular elections does not mean that they can entirely ignore the will of people (though it sure makes it easier). Ask Ceaușescu, Marcos, the Shah. For the public to become sufficiently enraged and galvanized to action by the airing of irrefutable evidence of Trump’s corruption, as well as that of the GOP at large, represents a threat every bit as real as a flipped district in Wisconsin.

ACQUITTAL WITHOUT EXONERATION

The consensus in the punditocracy is that Trump badly wants his acquittal before Super Bowl Sunday, when his interview with Hannity and a million dollar ad are scheduled to run. (Former RNC chairman turned Never Trumper Michael Steele confidently opines that the ad is surely built around the whole idea of Donald trumpeting his victory.) Not to mention the State of the Union looming next Tuesday.

How’s that for a charmed life: he not only gets to skip merrily way from his high crimes, but even gets to demand the timing of that impunity’s arrival.

But the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne crystallized the ultimate irony that many observers have already noted: the willingness of McConnell and the Republicans to turn this trial into the most blatantly possible sham you can imagine is robbing Trump of the thing he wants the most, which is plausible exoneration that he can wave like a flag during the upcoming general election.

Of course he will do that anyway. (He would do that even if they found him guilty.) But the more obvious the farcical nature of the trial, the harder it will be.

Therefore, what we are about to have as an acquittal without exoneration.

Dionne:

By working with Trump to rig the trial by admitting as little evidence as possible, McConnell robbed the proceeding of any legitimacy as a fair adjudication of Trump’s behavior. Instead of being able to claim that Trump was “cleared” by a searching and serious process, Republican senators will now be on the defensive for their complicity in the Trump coverup.

John Cassidy makes a similar point:

(I)f McConnell somehow succeeds in preventing Bolton from testifying after all this, there can no longer be even any pretense that the trial is on the level, or that an acquittal along party lines is anything other than an abject display of political cowardice and self-abasement by the current generation of Republican senators.

And Chait as well:

McConnell’s desired process of muscling through a wildly unpopular vote to suppress all evidence, followed by a vote to acquit, would rob the outcome of much of the legitimacy Republicans crave. It would instead be widely and accurately seen as a cover-up.

Mitch McConnell is not known for giving a flying fuck how bad his blunt machinations look, so long as they work. (Right, Merrick Garland?) But he is nonetheless a savvier operator than Trump. Knowing that his majority is going to acquit the president regardless, why hasn’t he put on at least the veneer of a fair trial? Would that not have been smarter public relations, and therefore politics, as Dionne, Cassidy, and Chait all note?

I’ll tell you why not:

Because, per above, the Republicans fear the facts and evidence coming out—on live TV no less—much more than they fear being accused of holding a sham trial. Since an acquittal is a near-certainty, the real goal of the Republicans is to limit the amount of damaging information about Trump’s behavior (and theirs) that will come out—ideally, to zero. That is how guilty the GOP knows he is, and how terrified it is of the details being made public. They would rather risk a backlash over a farcical trial than risk people hearing the truth.

But Adam Schiff has made the salient point that eventually the facts will come out, sooner or later, one way or another, and they promise to be even worse than what we already know. (Damn near every shoe-drop thus far has been.) The Republicans, consumed with short term survival and fearing for their political lives—and maybe their actual lives, depending on whether you take Trump’s mobby “head-on-a-pike” and “take-her-out” and “paid-the price” threats literally or just seriously—are obviously gambling that the public will have lost interest and moved on by then.

Ironically, Democrats might benefit politically from a rushed trial where GOP perfidy is blatant more than they would from a seemingly legitimate trial with witnesses and evidence that still ends in acquittal. In fact, the anti-Trump conservative writer Jonathan V. Last has suggested that the Democrats embrace that idea and stop even trying to call witnesses…..ignoring the obvious fact that the GOP would use that against them, much as they instructed witnesses in the House inquiry to defy subpoenas, and now criticize House Democrats for not spending years in court fighting to enforce them.

So what looks worse: a sham trial that blatantly blocks witnesses in order to excuse the accused, or one that allows them to speak and give airtight evidence and still excuses him? Neither reflects well on the GOP.

If only we lived in a country where people cared.

To that end, I am not so naïve as to think any of this will make an iota of difference to MAGA Nation come November. But either way, witnesses or not, in trying to crow about his alleged “exoneration,” Trump will not have the benefit of an even a halfway-convincing trial to bolster his claim. Any thinking person cannot seriously look at this charade and conclude that it was just…..and that includes the crucial “centrist” Republicans who are on the fence, soccer moms in the Philadelphia suburbs, and Obama/Trump switch hitters who are undecided about how to vote this time, among others. Given Trump’s razor thin margin of victory in 2016 (even with foreign interference), and his abysmal approval ratings outside his cult-like  base, those are voters he cannot afford to lose.

It also suggests a roadmap for how to proceed in the post-impeachment world. As Aaron Blake writes in the Washington Post, “The nightmare scenario for the GOP is that they give Trump the quick and witness-free acquittal that he apparently desires, but then information like Bolton’s keeps coming out.” Which we all know it will.

Jonathan Chait one last time:

Such an outcome would, in turn, legitimize House Democratic efforts to continue the investigation. They can continue to press for Bolton’s testimony, and continue prying loose the documents Trump has withheld. To the extent a Senate trial was perceived as thorough and fair, it would have made additional investigations look like sore-loser-ism. Republicans will say it anyway, but the national media will be far more likely to take such probes seriously in the wake of an overt cover-up.

If impeachment is about exacting a price for Trump’s misconduct, perhaps the highest price will come by letting his enablers reveal exactly how far they are willing to go.

GOODNIGHT DON

As I write this, the written questions phase of the trial has just ended. Susan Collins has announced she will vote yes to allow witnesses and Lamar Alexander has announced he will vote no. albeit on the Trump-defying grounds of “wrong but not impeachable.” (Two cheers for Lamar.) Murkowski has said she’ll announce her decision in the morning and Romney has been silent so far. There is speculation about John Roberts having to cast a tiebreaking vote, or abstain, which would be a de facto vote for the GOP position. What tomorrow will bring, I don’t know—none of us do—but it’s possible it could be the day that this all ends and Trump is acquitted.

And somewhere, right now, Donald Trump is wide awake, fuming about it all.

*********

Next time, more on whatever insane bullshit rolls down the pike next.

Photo: Business Insider

 

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