Impeachment seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?
Quid pro quo, “a perfect call,” Gordon Sondland: for something that so recently loomed so large on the national stage, these sound like vague echoes from a distant past, their meanings lost in antiquity. The coronavirus pandemic has so thoroughly consumed the news cycle, and our lives, and every waking moment, that everything that came before feels like ancient history.
For that matter, even the start of the lockdown feels like a lifetime ago. It’s almost hard to imagine resuming some semblance of normalcy when the time finally comes.
But the impeachment has been much on my mind lately, because it so starkly demonstrates the stakes of what can sometimes seem like mere partisan politics, and the terrible consequences of having an immoral, unprincipled party in power.
That has never been more clear than now, amid the ceaseless soundtrack of sirens in the streets of New York, and traumatized ER doctors committing suicide, and rotting bodies abandoned in trucks, and more dead than the US suffered in the Vietnam War, with no Paris peace talks in sight.
DEADPAN AND JUST PLAIN DEAD
A month ago, when the pandemic was still fairly new and the White House was still trying out defenses for its failure to respond, Mitch McConnell auditioned the risible claim Trump was unable to effectively prepare for the threat of COVID-19 because he was distracted by the baseless impeachment “hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats.
This was a lie so laughable that even McConnell—a man so straightfaced he makes Buster Keaton look like Robin Williams—could not maintain it. I’m sure it continues to circulate in MAGA World, but here in the reality-based community, where the elusive and possibly mythical swing voters graze, even the Republicans know it’s a non-starter.
Hilariously (we can laugh during tragedy, right?), Trump himself came along to undercut his own turtle-chinned defender, even as he recognized that going along could have helped him. CNN reports his response when subsequently asked about the issue at a press briefing:
“I think I handled it very well, but I guess it probably did (distract me),” Trump said…. “Did it divert my attention? I think I’m getting A+’s for the way I handled myself during a phony impeachment, OK? I don’t think I would have done any better had I not been impeached, OK?”
In other words, thrown a potential lifeline by McConnell, Trump’s sheer ego prevented him from grabbing it, so unwilling is he to concede any weakness or shortcoming at all.
Except it wasn’t really a lifeline at all, because it was so insultingly untrue.
Trump was impeached by the House on December 18; he was acquitted in the Senate on February 5th. During that period, he played golf (or was at one of his golf properties) four times. He held multiple campaign rallies (as documented by Leni Riefenstahl), and even hosted a Super Bowl party at Mar-a-Lago.
This was not a man desperately trying to eke out time to fight a pandemic.
And it was not because nobody told him there was a crisis. On February 5th, the very day he was acquitted, Democratic Senators including Chris Murphy of Connecticut were urging him to take stronger measures to prepare for the pandemic.
Instead, Mike Pompeo announced that the US was sending medical supplies to China.
We now know that the US Intelligence Community had warned of the pandemic in the President’s Daily Brief at least a dozen times in January and February, much as it had warned a certain previous Republican president about a certain Saudi’s intention to crash an airliner into a certain skyscraper. Of course, Trump alone among modern presidents famously disdains reading the PDB, preferring instead a bimonthly fifteen second recap on Snapchat, compiled by the folks who used to make Ren & Stimpy.
In the six weeks that followed his acquittal, Trump still didn’t respond, even as the flashing red warning lights grew brighter and brighter and the freaked-out experts shouting in his ear grew louder and louder. Very much the contrary. As we all know, he dismissed the severity of the pandemic with magical thinking, saying we would soon have “close to zero” cases, that it would go away with the warm weather, that we had it “very well under control,” that it would magically disappear.” Between February 10th and March 2nd, he also held another five campaign rallies across the US, drawing thousands of people into close quarters.
It was not until mid-March that he changed course and declared a national emergency, and even then only grudgingly, because it had been forced upon him.
Those six weeks, epidemiologists tell us, represent precious lost time that could not be made up and that led to the explosion of the virus in the United States.
To restate the oft-cited comparison, South Korea and the US both suffered their first known coronavirus deaths on the same day, January 20th (although we now know there had been some unidentified ones in the US earlier). South Korea took decisive action and has had only 250 deaths as of this writing. The US did not, and now leads the world by far both in known cases—over 1.1 million, about a third of all infections worldwide—and deaths, at more than 68,000 and still rising. And those numbers are surely undercounted, possibly by a lot.
In short, the notion that the six weeks of impeachment proceedings prevented Trump from taking action to address this looming disaster is the worst kind of bald-faced lie.
In the words of Captain Renault, I’m shocked, shocked.
TALE OF THE TAPE
Of course, Trump also had ample time to prepare for the COVID-19 outbreak before impeachment, as he was warned of what was coming—and its severity—multiple times and in multiple ways and by multiple sources prior to mid-December. The national security and law website Just Security recently published a comprehensive timeline of the myriad times and ways since 2017 that Trump and his minions have hindered our capability to respond to a pandemic in general and this one specifically. The Washington Post recently ran a similar piece. I recommend a deep dive into both to get the full scope of Trump’s criminal malpractice.
We all know that Trump’s only concern—apart from the ever-present prime directive of how he can financially profit—is how all this affects his prospects for re-election. To that end, in another dynamite, in-depth piece in the WaPo surveying the palace chaos inside the White House, the authors explain how his abdication of responsibility is partially deliberate, as a way to dodge accountability. Take, for example, the scattershot guidance to states for how to ease out of shelter-in-place:
(T)hough administration health officials produced detailed guidelines for reopening, those released by Trump were intentionally vague and devoid of clear metrics, making it easier for the president to avoid responsibility and harder for local leaders to interpret.
Wow, nothing like letting people die so you can avoid blame—you know, the way we expect a leader to behave. Whether it will work remains an open question. Trump has of course proved to be reliably bulletproof in every previous scandal, but at the risk of sounding naïve, I’m not sure the American people will fail to notice the extent to which he has fucked this one up.
In any case, the net effect of this appalling dereliction of duty has been to abandon the states to a mad, Darwinian, every-man-for-himself scramble, creating wildly destructive competition among the states and even between the states and the federal government.
For a particularly jawdropping example, consider Maryland Governor Larry Hogan—a Republican, I hasten to note—and the measures to which he had to resort to get COVID tests for his state:
(Hogan) quietly entered into negotiations with South Korea, with the help of his wife, Yumi, a Korean American. Exasperated with the lack of tests in his state, Hogan spent about 22 days arranging to procure 500,000 tests, negotiating with eight different Maryland agencies, the Korean embassy and officials at the State Department.
Once the FDA and US Customs and Border Protection signed off on the deal, a Korean Air jet touched down at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport on April 18 to deliver the supplies. Hogan said he was worried federal officials would try to commandeer the tests, so he had Maryland Army National Guard members and Maryland State Police officers escort and protect the cargo.
“It was like Fort Knox to us, because it was going to save the lives of thousands of our citizens,” Hogan said. “That was so important to us that we wanted to make sure that that plane took off from Korea safely, landed here in America safely, and that we guarded that cargo from whoever might interfere with us getting that to our folks that needed it.”
The move infuriated Trump, who has long chafed at Hogan’s criticisms and, according to advisers, saw Maryland’s deal with South Korea as a bid to embarrass the president.
Holy shit. Please take a moment to stop and think about that. An American governor felt he had to call out armed soldiers to guard precious medical supplies so that the nation’s ruling family wouldn’t steal them. That is the kind of thing that goes on in a Third World banana republic led by a kleptocratic Mugabe-style dictator. Which the USA now arguably is.
GHOSTS OF UKRAINE
Both before and after the impeachment, I wrote at length (and I do mean length) that bringing charges against Trump for high crimes and misdemeanors was not only the right thing to do on principle, but would also benefit the Democrats tactically and pragmatically. It was always a false choice that we could either hold Trump accountable under the law, or concentrate on defeating him in November, but not both. Tellingly, it was usually Republicans making that argument, Brer Rabbit style.
But the two efforts were always intertwined. Standing up for what is right, defending the Constitution, demonstrating that the Democratic Party has backbone and integrity, and setting a precedent to deter future would-be despots were all strong reasons for bringing this pretender to trial, no matter the inevitability of his acquittal by means of Republican ranks-closing. The alleged electoral fallout was also illusory. You don’t get people to vote for your side by being too timid to stand up to a bully, and it undercuts your claim that the man is a menace if you don’t use every recourse you have to stop him. Even if the process caused his brain-dead supporters to cling more tightly to him, and even drew in a few right-leaning fence-sitters, we were not going to win those people over anyway.
Now, of course, the pandemic has completely scrambled the electoral landscape and rendered all those calculations obsolete……but not to Donald’s advantage. In the wake of an unprecedented public health crisis that has left 68,000 Americans dead, impeachment looks more than ever like the right thing to have done.
Just five years ago the Republican Party recoiled at the mere thought of Donald Trump as its nominee. Since then it has made its peace with him, to say the least. As far as the peacemaking metaphor goes, it was less like a truce than an unconditional surrender of what remained of the GOP’s principles (cough cough) as it cravenly became a shameless cult of personality, presumably as a way to maintain power when demographics and democracy have made that objective otherwise untenable. And nowhere was that self-abasement more clear than in his impeachment.
For those who’ve forgotten: Trump’s extortion of a vulnerable foreign ally—one in the throes of a war with Russia, I hasten to note— by withholding Congressionally mandated military aid unless that ally would manufacture dirt on a domestic political rival is the very definition of abuse of power. Yet a party that wanted Obama tarred and feathered for putting mustard on his hamburger and for wearing a brown suit somehow found Trump’s actions completely excusable. (Trump, of course, demanded even more than mere tolerance: he insisted that his minions applaud him.)
Even sanctimonious frauds like Ben Sasse, and self-deluding weaklings like Susan Collins, and sclerotic retirees-to-be with nothing to lose like Lamar Alexander could not find the gumption to squeak out their displeasure. It was stomach-churning to watch the GOP debase itself at Trump’s feet, and for precious little gain I might add. In light of what has followed, it is even more horrific to think of it now.
These cowards must live with their consciences, and the knowledge that, for the sake of partisanship, or tax breaks for the rich, or conservative Supreme Court justices, or whatever Faustian bargain is their rationalization of choice, they willingly surrendered the stewardship of hundreds of millions of American lives to a lying, moneygrubbing, shockingly incompetent sociopath who fiddled “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” while Rome burned.
I hope every American voter sees that too.
By contrast, going into November, the Democratic Party can stand up and say that it did everything humanly possible to hold this monster to account. It can also say that it was thwarted only by the unconscionable hyperpartisanship of an opposition party that was willing to excuse and condone and cover for some of the most egregious abuses of power in American presidential history. And now we are all paying the price, in human lives. Imagine how history would have looked upon the Democratic Party had it not stood up and impeached him!
By cynically protecting Donald Trump and the malevolent incompetence of his reign (or is incompetent malevolence?), the Republican Party ensured that the very worst possible people in America would remain in charge during the most crucial phase of the most deadly crisis we have faced since World War II.
Call me naïve, but I would hope this might prompt a dark night of the soul for Collins, Alexander, Murkowski, Graham, Sasse, and the rest. I mention only these few Republicans who, for one reason or another we had cause to think might show an iota of integrity, or at least had histories that made their support of Trump even more hypocritical than most. The vast majority of their colleagues are so bereft of moral fiber as to be beyond even that level of desperate consideration. When you’re pinning your hopes on the integrity of Lindsay Graham, you know you’re far gone.
Beyond Governor Hogan, the few Republicans who have defied or broken with Trump can be counted on two fingers (preferably raised, palm inward, in the British manner): Mitt Romney, the lone GOP vote to convict in the Senate, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, whose popularity has soared in the Buckeye State for defying Trump’s “re-open the economy” madness.
Efforts are underway now to see if we can get these two extremely rare wild unicorns (Republicanus responsibilium) to mate and reproduce to rebuild the species, in captivity if necessary.
THE LAWS OF PHYSICS
Here in the moment, we are riven by tribalism and competing versions of reality: the one that empiricism supports, in which Trump botched this thing twelve ways to Sunday, and the fairy tale one where he deserves his self-awarded 10 out of 10. (Just ask Jared.)
It is certainly frustrating that more than a third of the country clings to that second narrative in stubborn defiance of the facts, with Trump’s floor of about 40% support holding irrationally steady, mindboggling as that is. But history is always much more clear-eyed.
Posterity will remember Donald Trump with withering contempt as the worst president in American history, a bigot and an ignoramus and a self-pitying fool whose criminal incompetence and towering ego led to tens of thousands of American deaths (if not more) and a historic economic collapse, all of which could have been avoided or at least minimized by even half-assed, mediocre leadership.
History’s verdict will be an enormous irony for a narcissist who launched his presidential campaign as a publicity stunt, never thinking he would actually win, only to have that victory ultimately destroy him, and his business, and his family, and his reputation forever. (Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.)
Sure, there will always be revanchists who cling to tiny minority views: that Nixon was a great man, that segregation was terrific, that the Sudetenland really did belong to Germany. Donald’s defenders will be similarly consigned to dusty corners of the dark web. But when our grandchildren’s grandchildren hear the name “Trump” (should the human species survive that long), it will be a synonym for the very worst that the USA has ever wrought.
And they will also remember the people who were his enablers and accomplices.
What do they teach us in elementary school? Actions have consequences. And the consequences of the Roman phalanx that the Republican Party formed around Donald Trump—over Russiagate, over Ukraine, over his hush money payments to porn stars, over his tax returns, over his foreign business entanglements, over all his manifold sins—are now tragically apparent as it tries to defend him over the greatest and most inexcusable failure of all.
Dear readers, I hope you and your families and your loved ones are well and safe and healthy.
Sadly, we did not have to be in a position where that is an issue.
Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images