The right choice; the only right choice

This isn’t the New York Times or the Washington Post or CNN, or any of Donald Trump’s other favorite targets.  This is the Wall Street Journal, fer cryin’ out loud, adding its credibility to that of many other outlets in reporting the story that seems to have shaken loose the impeachment process in Washington, D.C.: “President Trump in a July phone call repeatedly pressured the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden’s son, according to people familiar with the matter, urging Volodymyr Zelensky about eight times to work with Rudy Giuliani on a probe that could hamper Mr. Trump’s potential 2020 opponent.”

To summarize: the president is accused of using his official position, by withholding and threatening to withhold American military aid to another country, to pressure that country’s leader into conducting an investigation meant to damage the political career of one of his potential political rivals in advance of the 2020 election.

And this came after the report last week that someone inside the intelligence community had filed an official whistleblower complaint about Trump making a commitment to a foreign leader, which the inspector general for the intelligence community determined was legitimate and an urgent matter that should, by law, have been forwarded to Congressional committees.  But it wasn’t—still hasn’t been—because the acting director of national intelligence blocked it.  A Trump appointee who was never confirmed by the Senate, made that decision in conjunction with Bill Barr’s Justice Department.

Today Trump insisted there was nothing untoward in his conversation with the president of Ukraine, and later said he would release a transcript of that phone call…tomorrow.  We have some idea of how reliable a document that might be.  But in the meantime, these developments led House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change her mind and announce a formal impeachment inquiry.  At last.  It’s about time.

(Earlier today, prior to the Democratic caucus and Pelosi’s announcement, Slate restarted the Impeach-O-Meter as a “(still wildly subjective and speculative) estimate of the likelihood that the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of his first term” and which I intend to try to keep up with, and late this afternoon published a helpful refresher guide on How to Impeach a President.  Neat.)

Go online and search “Trump’s impeachable offenses”  to refresh your recollection if you need to.  Since inauguration day this president has repeatedly and unashamedly shown his disdain for the Constitution and the law, for tradition, for the separation of powers, and for the intelligence of the American people—especially, I think, for the ones who supported him out of a misplaced belief in his promises about…everything!

(Those are just from the past week.)

It’s past time that our Congress took the action the Constitution provides for in a case like this—this is what impeachment is there for, dammit.  Up to now the Republicans in Congress have proven themselves unable to undrink the Trump-aid, and there’s no real doubt that the Senate would never convict Trump of any accusations brought by the House.  But the Democrats simply cannot abdicate their responsibility to their constituents, and to history, to do what they can.

For so many of his actions as president, Trump deserves impeachment by the House.  He deserves to be condemned to that short short list of impeached presidents, right next to Hillary’s husband, even if he’s not removed from office by the Senate.  As a more practical matter, Adam Jentleson, a staffer for former Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, argues that the impeachment process itself will hurt Trump politically, and that not moving ahead with impeachment opens the door for Trump to insist that he was fully exonerated of all wrongdoing.  You want to listen to that for the rest of your life?

There are two lessons here for House Democrats as they debate whether to open an impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

First, polling can change.

I don’t know how else to say this: getting impeached is bad. It is not something you want to happen to you, especially if you’re president. You do not want to go down as one of only four [sic] presidents in history to be impeached. This is a bad thing. Only Democrats, bless our hearts, could convince ourselves that it is good for a president to be impeached.

Richard Nixon’s approval rating was at 65 percent when his impeachment process began and only 19 percent of the public supported his impeachment. By the end, the numbers had flipped: his approval was 24 percent and support for impeachment was 57 percent.

(snip)

The second lesson from the [Merrick] Garland experience is that like nature, power abhors a vacuum. The decision not to impeach is not a decision to focus on other things, it is a decision to cede power, control, and legitimacy to Trump. Trump is not a master chess player, he just bluffs his opponents into forfeiting their moves—and that is exactly what he is doing to House Democrats.

For their part, House Democrats have argued that by foregoing impeachment they can shift the conversation to topics their consultants tell them are safer ground, like health care. That’s not going to happen. Reporters cover news, and only events that drive news can shift the message.

(snip)

Impeachment is a long process that will highlight Trump’s crimes, which according to (literally) one thousand former federal prosecutors, include “multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Imagine the Michael Cohen, James Comey, or William Barr hearings but on steroids, for many weeks. Anything can happen and hearings can go haywire, but the odds of making a convincing public case against Trump are stacked strongly in Democrats’ favor. Trump’s crimes are serious and laid out in meticulous detail by an unimpeachable source. The public already believes he committed serious crimes by a margin of two to one. There is already a loud chorus decrying Trump’s crimes and arguing that he should be impeached, ranging from Kellyanne Conway’s husband to a sitting Republican Congressman. In this case, the impeachment process is like one of those meals where all the ingredients come in a box: you have to boil some water and maybe crack an egg, but it’s basically idiot-proof.

If and when the House votes to impeach, the ball goes to the Senate. The Senate can ignore it, which means the House’s impeachment is the last word. That would be fine. But McConnell would be under enormous pressure from Trump and the entire right-wing echosphere to call a Kangaroo court into session for the purpose of letting Trump off. If the Senate conducts a trial, Senate Republicans up for reelection in 2020—like Maine’s Susan Collins and Colorado’s Cory Gardner—will have to decide whether to vote to remove from office a President who has been shown to have committed serious crimes, or protect him. They will likely vote to protect Trump and it will cost them: they will have to explain which of Trump’s many crimes they think are no big deal, why they disagree with the many voices from their own party saying his crimes make him unfit, and why a criminal president should be allowed to continue in office.

More importantly, if the public believes Trump is guilty but the Senate lets him off anyway, he won’t ever be truly exonerated—he’ll be O.J. Simpson, assumed guilty but sprung by allies and circumstance. Some Democrats have argued that we should skip impeachment and vote Trump out instead. But if the House impeaches Trump and Senate Republicans fall in line to protect him, the argument that the ballot is the only way to remove him will be supercharged.

By contrast, declining to impeach Trump validates his claim that Mueller exonerated him.

(snip)

Even more ominously, Trump’s weaponized Department of Justice under Barr, who has shown himself to be Trump’s eager and obedient partner in abusing the power of the state to advance the president’s political interests, will inevitably invent a pretext for investigating the Democratic nominee. Democrats should consider whether they’d rather engage that fight against a president who has been impeached for serious crimes, or against a president strengthened by the de facto exoneration bestowed when his opponents declined to pursue the evidence against him.

https://twitter.com/tonyschwartz/status/1175403260590657536

And remember this:

I can always count on Dahlia Lithwick to see through to the crux of the matter: “The integrity of our democracy isn’t threatened when a president breaks the law. It’s threatened when we do nothing about it.”

It defies logic for House Democrats to insist that their sole hope for salvation will be found in the 2020 election, when the 2020 election is subject to the same acts of foreign interference that poisoned 2016; when indeed they are failing to respond to the admitted acts of interference that happen before their eyes. By refusing to hold the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell responsible for any of that interference—indeed by pretending it was very, very bad but let’s look forward and not backward, House leadership is inviting even more abuse. And in the face of it, Democrats continue to insist that the long game is what matters, even as the short game is making the long game increasingly unwinnable.

The net outcome of doing nothing is not politically or morally neutral. The net outcome is future loss after future loss.

When Corey Lewandowski puts on a clinic about contempt of Congress and nothing is done by the only body capable of doing something, that sends a powerful signal that all such future contempt will be welcome and effective. And when Robert Mueller says plainly and unequivocally that the next election is already in the process of being stolen, and nobody acts to secure it, that sends a powerful signal that all such interference is welcome and effective. To be sure, Democrats have very limited power at present and nobody doubts that the Senate will cower, whatever the results of an impeachment probe may be, and fail to convict. But by sitting on that limited power, fretting about how sad and mad they are, House Democrats are in point of fact giving over those limited powers to the other side.

By seemingly forgiving and forgetting the past, House Democrats are implying that they’ll also forfeit their chance at oversight in the future. In failing to say that the last worst thing was the impassable red line, they imply time and again that they are waiting for the next worst thing, which may really be the red line. But the implication that everyone’s waiting for the “big one” ignores the fact that the big one happened when this president endangered spies in a casual conversation in the Oval Office, when he took Vladimir Putin’s side over his own security advisers in Helsinki, when he tried to have Jeff Sessions fired, and when he conditioned foreign aid on helping to bury a political adversary.

Can’t give up

So…tiiired…of Trump…bludgeoning our sensibilities with the blunt object that is his ignorance, seemingly without end.  (I went into that sentence meaning to say that the bludgeoning is without end, but now that I re-read it I guess it works the other way, too.)

I will say to you what I keep saying to myself: please don’t just shrug and think, well, he’s doing it again but nobody believes him so it doesn’t matter.  And I say “nobody believes him” in the sense that everyone knows he is not a truthful or trustworthy person, and we put no confidence in the veracity of any utterance from him, whether verbal or Twitteral.  The evidence for this is irrefutable: at any time and in any circumstance he will assert as true whatever “fact” he wants or needs to be true at that moment, whether that “moment” is the length of a whole political campaign or just the time it takes to get to the next sentence.  Kind of amusing, really, that he is incapable of understanding, or just doesn’t care, that we remember the things he said before, and recognize when his statements are contradictory.  It’s as if, in his fevered little world, the only time that matters is this red hot second—and if he contradicts himself a second from now, or a minute or an hour or a year from now, that’s going to be fine because, well, he’s him, and everybody loves Trump.  Except those who hate America, of course.

I gotta say I share a lot of the feelings that George Conway expressed in a Washington Post op-ed today.  I’ve resisted falling back on the easy answer—stupid, racist, narcissist—to each successive unbelievable rant from our president.

And how naive an adult could be. The birther imaginings about Barack Obama? Just a silly conspiracy theory, latched onto by an attention seeker who has a peculiar penchant for them. The “Mexican” Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel incident? Asinine, inappropriate, a terrible attack on the judiciary by an egocentric man who imagined that the judge didn’t like him. The white supremacists’ march in Charlottesville? The president’s comments were absolutely idiotic, but he couldn’t possibly have been referring to those self-described Nazis as “good people”; in his sloppy, inarticulate way, he was referring to both sides of the debate over Civil War statues, and venting his anger about being criticized.

No, I thought, President Trump was boorish, dim-witted, inarticulate, incoherent, narcissistic and insensitive. He’s a pathetic bully but an equal-opportunity bully — in his uniquely crass and crude manner, he’ll attack anyone he thinks is critical of him. No matter how much I found him ultimately unfit, I still gave him the benefit of the doubt about being a racist. No matter how much I came to dislike him, I didn’t want to think that the president of the United States is a racial bigot.

Of course, I broke through my resistance to “narcissist” long ago, because it was so very clearly true and afforded me the veneer of writing what sounded like an educated critique instead of a schoolyard taunt.  As for “stupid,” well, I just don’t really know if it applies.  I don’t know him, have never been around him, don’t know whether he takes an active role in anything his administration or his businesses do, for good or bad.  I sense that he is not clever, and I don’t think he should get credit for being so smart that he’s thinking three steps ahead of everyone—the whole “he’s playing 3D chess while the rest of us are playing checkers” explanation offered by so many (and you know who you are).  I rather think he’s just “I know you are but what am I”ing the whole country anytime anyone says anything that he doesn’t hear as “Trump is great!”

But racist, really racist?  Hardcore bigot?

…Sunday left no doubt. Naivete, resentment and outright racism, roiled in a toxic mix, have given us a racist president. Trump could have used vile slurs, including the vilest of them all, and the intent and effect would have been no less clear. Telling four non-white members of Congress — American citizens all, three natural-born — to “go back” to the “countries” they “originally came from”? That’s racist to the core. It doesn’t matter what these representatives are for or against — and there’s plenty to criticize them for — it’s beyond the bounds of human decency. For anyone, not least a president.

As troubling as is Trump himself, this episode provides another opportunity to despair of the leadership of the Republican party, as well as of the followership, and of the news that the good sense of (some of) these people, who really do know better than to silently acquiesce to this crap, has apparently been taken hostage by President Stubbyfingers.  The terrific Dahlia Lithwick skewers them in Slate thusly:

For a long time in the runup to the 2016 elections, many Republicans, many of whom called themselves Never Trumpers, felt free to condemn Donald Trump in public. After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, Republicans reacted in horror.

(snip)

At the time, these reactions were unremarkable. Any sentient listener would have said and done the same. Today, though, with almost no exceptions, Donald Trump’s vicious racist tweets telling four American congresswomen of color to “go back” to their home countries was met with near-universal and stoic Republican silence.

(snip)

There’s one important move here: They can’t be completely silent. There has to be some solicitous reporting on their sobering discomfort—the cringing, the wincing, the eye-rolls; the notion that they are somehow pained by the president’s naked racist rants (but not in enough pain to do or say anything about it).

(snip)

This is not the first time we’ve been told that Republicans in Congress are suffering. CNN reported that they were “cringing” in “private” a month ago when Trump told ABC News he’d consider accepting incriminating campaign information about an opponent from a foreign government without calling the FBI. Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe was publicly “cringing” at Trump’s similarly terrible tweets last December, even as he celebrated Trump’s immigration achievements. The suffering of Trump supporters knows no boundaries. Cringing is presumably an upgrade on the traumatic “hand-wringing” suffered by Republicans in 2015, after Trump said something vile about Megyn Kelly, and also the injurious “hand-wringing” of John Kasich, who threw in the towel on a primary challenge against Trump in 2020. Hand-wringing plus cringing! Call the doctor! It’s moral carpal tunnel!

(snip)

But as contemptible as allowing cowards to take cover behind silence might be, allowing them to whisper their secret suffering to the press is despicable. So the next time some poor GOP leaders hiss at you, under cover of anonymity, how excruciating the hand-wringing plus the cringing plus the eye-rolling has become for them, ask them instead if there is anything the president could do that would cause them to actually speak up, if there is any act of racism or misogyny that could warrant an action, an actual response. And if they are silent, don’t give them the privilege of calling it suffering. Children sleeping under Mylar blankets at the border and eating unthawed burritos are suffering. Republicans afraid of being primaried are collaborating. There is still a difference.

Conway wonders about his fellow Republicans, too, but rather than conclude that they are complicit he tends more to the conclusion that they are are simply cowards.

They’re silent not because they agree with Trump. Surely they know better. They’re silent because, knowing that he’s incorrigible, they have inured themselves to his wild statements; because, knowing that he’s a fool, they don’t really take his words seriously and pretend that others shouldn’t, either; because, knowing how damaging Trump’s words are, the Republicans don’t want to give succor to their political enemies; because, knowing how vindictive, stubborn and obtusely self-destructive Trump is, they fear his wrath.

But none of that is good enough. Trump is not some random, embittered person in a parking lot — he’s the president of the United States. By virtue of his office, he speaks for the country. What’s at stake now is more important than judges or tax cuts or regulations or any policy issue of the day. What’s at stake are the nation’s ideals, its very soul.

UPDATE 7/17: Last night after I finished this post the House approved a resolution condemning the president’s racist Tweets.  I think that’s good, although it’d have nice if more than four Republicans had voted for it.  It matters for Congress to not ignore a president’s unacceptable behavior, and just maybe it’ll give this Congress enough of a good feeling from having done their job that they’ll see that proceeding with an impeachment hearing is the right thing to do, regardless of what action the Senate would ultimately take.