The Senate has stumbled its way through Donald Trump’s trial and, having acquitted the president, Republicans are urging us to “move on.” But before we do — and for the sake of the historical record — this episode demands one final assessment of what is left in the wake of impeachment.
Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander tried to employ a Solomon-like splitting the difference on Trump. Alexander admitted Trump’s misdeeds: “It was inappropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate his political opponent and to withhold United States aid to encourage that investigation.” And he described his obstruction: “When elected officials inappropriately interfere with such investigations, it undermines the principle of equal justice under the law.”
Then Alexander said: Never mind.
Reporter Tim Alberta, author of the best book yet on what has become of the Republican Party, offered the best take on the Alexander method: Even though he is retiring, Alexander fears Trump’s wrath and cowers before the angry MAGA mob.
“I’m just explaining the reality for these Rs,” Alberta said. “They feel trapped, most of them — and retirement isn’t the escape we might think.”
No member of Idaho’s all Republican congressional delegation is retiring, of course, and none offered even the mildest rebuke to the president’s actions in soliciting election interference — in the second straight election — from a foreign government. They could muster no hint of indignation that the president systematically obstructed congressional examination of his actions. They wanted to hear no witness to the lawbreaking simply because they knew hearing from a John Bolton or a Mick Mulvaney would open a wound so deep and so gaping that it would bring down this entirely corrupt administration.
Whatever happens next, Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch as well as Congressmen Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher now own.
By ignoring historical levels of presidential misconduct and participating in a show trial that would have made Joseph Stalin proud, they have sanctioned more of the same from their leader. Those Republicans, such as Maine’s Susan Collins and Iowa’s Joni Ernst, who believe Trump will be chastened by his ordeal, live in an utter fantasyland.
Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein put it correctly: “The most likely outcome of the impeachment trial will be that congressional Republicans are even less likely to confront Trump on his behavior, at least as long as it doesn’t threaten their policy preferences. And this will have the consequence of making those Republicans who do believe Trump did something wrong even less important within the party. Instead, it will further empower Fox News, the House Freedom Caucus and others on the right who act with disdain for constitutional government.”
Or, as journalist Peter Baker writes: “Trump emerges from the biggest test of his presidency emboldened, ready to claim exoneration and take his case of grievance, persecution and resentment to the campaign trail.”
Others, including journalist Gabriel Sherman, have written this week of Trump’s desire for “revenge” against his “enemies,” the key chapter from his never varying playbook, that calls for going “after people who crossed him during impeachment.”
This reality is simply that Trump runs his solely owned Republican Party by fear and intimidation and that fact is central to understanding the impeachment response of Idaho’s four cowed and callow federal officeholders. They are unwilling to confront presidential misconduct because they know they risk the ire of the president and his angry followers. This fear demands they willingly ignore historic misconduct.
Historians will spill a lot of ink explaining how we got here and how acceptable presidential behavior has been so dumbed down that we now see the once proud “law and order” Republican Party reduced to covering for a serial liar who they know will offend again, and likely offend even more grievously.
While this is a Republican mess of the first order, Democrats share some responsibility for where the country finds itself and not because they correctly investigated and proved — as Sen. Alexander and others now admit — Trump’s lawlessness. No, Democratic culpability dates back two decades to a time, as is now clear, when Bill Clinton should have been forced to resign or been removed.
David P. Schippers is now forgotten to most Americans. He deserves to be remembered, as his words from December 1998 still strike an eerie chord. Schippers was a burly Chicago lawyer, a Democrat, who headed the Clinton investigation for the Republican-controlled House Judiciary Committee, in and of itself a remarkable footnote to history.
“The president,” Shippers said of Clinton, “has lied under oath in a civil deposition, lied under oath in a criminal grand jury. He lied to the people, he lied to his cabinet, he lied to his top aides and now he’s lied under oath to the Congress of the United States. There’s no one left to lie to.”
The Republican House impeached Clinton, of course, but the Senate, influenced by the Clinton spin that the case was just about sex and not about perjury and obstruction of justice, refused to convict the man who possessed, as Christopher Hitchens colorfully wrote, “a rust-free zipper.”
“As a pair,” American Enterprise Institute scholar Gary J. Schmitt wrote this week, “Clinton’s acquittal and Trump’s will set a bar for removal that suggests ‘a little’ wrongdoing by a president will be judged OK. Whether this low bar is what the framers had in mind is an entirely different question.”
Of course, the founders wrote impeachment into the Constitution for precisely the kind of offenses Clinton and Trump committed. To suggest otherwise is to gaslight Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and all the rest who risked life and fortune to create a system where a lying, cheating despot would not be allowed to rule.
Republicans will rue the day they refused witnesses, sanctioned blatant disregard for the rule of law and invited what they must know will be ever more unconcealed corruption. An entire party and, in particular, senators such as Crapo and Risch, tied themselves in rhetorical knots addressing not the obvious facts of the case, but the procedure, while claiming in their best Orwellian manner that they were “following the Constitution.”
Trump engaged in “an appalling abuse of public trust,” Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said as he claimed for himself if not for his party a modicum of honor in voting to convict the president of his own party. Romney’s courage and honesty stand in contrast to the appalling political opportunism of the Idaho cowards.
Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.