Trumpeting their true colors

On Wednesday morning, still working from home most days because of COVID-19, I saw an email from the boss a few steps above me on the food chain warning us all of some new procedures to be followed if we had to physically go into the office.  I emailed my supervisor to ask if this new “help” from management was really something new for us and he said we’d talk about it in our regular meeting that afternoon; I replied “Meeting?  But I planned to watch Congress count the electoral votes this afternoon.”

I didn’t get to bed until 3:00 the next morning.

The election results have been clear: Joe Biden won, fair and square.  Recounts, and recounts of recounts, in many states, all showed that Biden won enough states to give him 306 electoral votes—the same amount Trump got in 2016, when he characterized it as landslide victory.  More than five dozen court cases challenging vote totals and voting laws in several states all sustained that result.  None of the accusations of fraud led to evidence of enough illegality that would change the result.  Many of the legal challenges were comically inept in their composition.  Republican governors and legislatures and secretaries of state did not bow to the siren song of a plea from the president to “find” the outcome he desired—they followed their laws and certified the legal winner.  The Electoral College certified those results.  Now it was up to Congress to add up the totals.  A formality.

There were stories online about a rally near the White House that morning where the president was reportedly repeating his regular grievances and his lies about the theft of his re-election, and I ignored that as just so much more of the same old same old, the blah blah blah that I and so many others have become so tired of, and so inured to, that I was so looking forward to, so very soon, not having to hear any more.  I was oblivious to the news that Trump supporters had a plan for the day:

The advance publicity for the “March for America” had been robust. Beyond the repeated promotions in tweets by the president and his allies, the upcoming event was cheered on social media, including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

But woven through many of the messages to stand up for Mr. Trump — and, if possible, block the congressional certification of the election he claimed he had won — was language that flirted with aggression, even violence.

For example, the term “Storm the Capitol” was mentioned 100,000 times in the 30 days preceding Jan. 6, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company. Many of these mentions appeared in viral tweet threads that discussed the possible storming of the Capitol and included details on how to enter the building.

To followers of QAnon, the convoluted collection of conspiracy theories that falsely claims the country is dominated by deep-state bureaucrats and Democrats who worship Satan, the word “storm” had particular resonance. Adherents have often referred to a coming storm, after which Mr. Trump would preside over a new government order.

I’d seen the news that Vice President Pence had announced he would not/could not/had no authority to overrule the states and decide which electoral votes could be counted and which tossed aside.  After four years of his incredible obsequiousness to Trump I was surprised that he was acting like his own man but grateful to see it—I assumed now it would just be a matter of waiting through the speeches challenging the votes in a few states, and then the curtain would fall on the last scene of a dreadful play.

In blissful ignorance of what was to come, I tuned in for the start of the joint session of Congress but instead saw video of hundreds of people at the doors around the Capitol—no wait, it’s thousands, in fun colorful hats and shirts and carrying flags and such.  They looked to me like they were having more or less friendly exchanges with the police and security officers while they demonstrated their insistence that Trump had not lost the election.  Inside, Pence started the roll call of states to tabulate the electoral votes…and outside, the crowd was slowly moving up the steps of the Capitol.  And when some of them seemed to have made it inside, I assumed that police had let them in…there was no sign of any confrontation, and no reporting that there had been any.  But that changed.

A bloodied officer was crushed in a doorway screaming in Wednesday’s siege, which forced lawmakers to go into hiding for hours and halt their voting to affirm President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Another officer tumbled over a railing into the crowd below after being body-slammed from behind. Members of the media were cursed, shoved and punched.

A vast number of photos and videos captured the riot, which left five people dead. Many of the images were taken by the rioters themselves, few of whom wore masks that would have lowered not only their chances of contracting the coronavirus, but their chances of being identified. Some took pains to stand out.

My favorite amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees, among other things, “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  (Emphasis added.)  When those people forced their way into the building, a peaceful protest turned into a criminal act.  And what I remember thinking as I watched on Wednesday, and knowing as little as I did then about the details, was that the Capitol police—clearly outmanned, and maybe outgunned—were smart to be taking a patient approach.  Rather than open fire, causing more casualties and who knows what kind of potential escalation, they were letting the baby cry itself out.  They even escorted some of the protesters out of the building.  There were no reports of large numbers of people being arrested, or of being injured.  The vote counting concluded.

While the U.S. Capitol was under attack by thousands of people intending to subvert the outcome of our election, some of them meaning to capture and possibly execute representatives of our government, President Sentence Fragment watched from a catered party tent at the White House before moving inside and staying glued to the TV.  He didn’t call out the National Guard, or any law enforcement agencies to assist; until pressed by his advisers he didn’t make any effort to get the protesters to stop, and when he did he told them he loved them; he didn’t make a phone call to find out if his vice president was safe and unharmed; and while the invasion was still going on he continued calling members of Congress trying to convince them to change the outcome of the election.  He is still insisting the election was stolen from him, and said he will not be attending Biden’s inauguration.  Good.

Since the events of Wednesday there are Trump supporters who are calling for him to resign, or to be impeached (again), or for Pence and the Cabinet to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove him from office.  Inasmuch as he has proved, yet again, that he cannot be trusted to obey the law or even to control his own impulses, I’d support any effort within the law to remove him from office.  The voters have done what they can, and he will be gone soon.  Others argue that the nation needs to heal, and any effort to remove Trump now will damage that effort.  That’s bullshit.

If we do nothing, if we turn away from this shameful event—this terroristic attack on our nation’s capital, nothing less than that—we will be tacitly encouraging it to happen again.  If we do not hold lawbreakers accountable for their actions, they won’t have any reason not to do it again.  We punish our children so they learn to behave, the same reasoning applies to entitled adults.

I don’t want to leave without touching on another important aspect of what we saw Wednesday.  It is fair to ask why it appears that these protesters—these white protesters—were treated so gently by law enforcement.

Can you imagine a scenario where an African-American mob storms the Capitol and the lawn is not littered with bodies and blood? That happens to Black people when they ask for equal justice, much less if they tried to overthrow the government. Yet this mostly white mob had the run of the building. What a shameful and wretched spectacle. What an embarrassment.

It’s another important aspect of the things we learned last week, thanks to Donald Trump.

For four years, Trump has made war on the constitutional order, on the institutions of American democracy, and on anyone who stood in his way. Almost all of the Republicans on Capitol Hill let him do it. They aided and abetted him. They voted to acquit him of impeachment charges. They endorsed him for reëlection and even acceded to his request not to bother with a Republican Party platform. The Party’s ideology, henceforth, would be whatever Trump wanted it to be. When Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, bragged about Trump’s successful “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party, he was, in a toxically untruthful Administration, for once telling the truth.

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.