How to capture this moment? The Senate began the formal impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump with solemn pomp and ritual: the formal readings of the articles, the swearing in of Chief Justice John Roberts, and the administering of the oath to the Senate.
And, as all this unfolded, the president tweeted out, leaning hard on the shift key:
I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 16, 2020
Because, of course he would.
This is in, in so many ways, the moment that Trump has brought us: A mind-bending mixture of high drama and low farce. A moment of historic weight blended with nearly cartoonish absurdity—even as it becomes apparent that the trial involves a crime very much still in progress.
My colleague Jonathan V. Last has noted that Trump inevitably corrupts everything he touches; he also diminishes it. Impeachment is the ultimate test of the resilience of our institutions and political culture. And Trump is on track to shrink it as he has withered both the presidency and our politics. What he can’t dominate, he beclowns. Now it is the Senate’s turn.
For a brief moment yesterday, it may have seemed that the Senate was actually taking its responsibilities seriously. The senators all signed the oath “that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending” they would “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws.” So help them, God.
All of them signed it. It is unclear how many of them meant it.
Lindsey Graham, eager to secure his legacy as an historical punchline, has certainly made clear that he will try his best to turn the proceedings into a charade. “The best thing for the American people is to end this crap as quickly as possible,” he declared. Other senators gibbered on about souvenir pens. Some, such as Arizona’s Martha McSally, marked the historic occasion by indulging in outbursts of petulant hackery.
In all of this, they took their cue from Trump himself. Just the other day, Trump spokesman Hogan Gidley bravely declared the president’s eagerness for witnesses.
“And if you or anyone within the sound of our voices have been falsely accused of a crime, with no proof, and no evidence, for more than three years, you’d want every witness to come forward too, and say this man did nothing wrong.”
This is, of course, bullshit, as the president’s party—the one he leads like a mob boss—has been making every effort to block any witnesses from testifying at the trial.
And no wonder. As each day passes we are getting a fuller picture of the cloud of sleaze, corruption, and sheer stupidity that surrounds his presidency in general and his dealings with Ukraine in particular. As David French notes, the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his “team” (including Lev Parnas) were a virtual traveling Mos Eisley cantina of crooks, grifters, and amateurs.”
Jim Geraghty noticed the same thing:
You would like to think that even if the president of the United States decided to go through with a back-channel inquiry to the Ukrainian government to see if he could get them to investigate the Bidens, he would take one look at Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. These guys look like the most oafish henchmen since Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt went after Nancy Kerrigan. You wouldn’t trust these guys to pick up a take-out lunch order, much less use them to execute a secret and politically sensitive request of a foreign government.”
The whole thing is like the Sopranos, if it was directed by Judd Apatow. It’s Watergate meets the Three Stooges.
It would almost be funny, if the stakes were not so high. We are, after all, watching a bad reality television show with nuclear weapons and a president whose full contempt for the rule of law will be unleashed by the near-inevitable vote to acquit.
The conduct involved is serious enough, but this is what makes this trial unique: It involves an ongoing high crime and misdemeanor. The key difference between this investigation and the Mueller probe is that Trump’s misconduct in Ukraine is prospective—it involves attempts to meddle with the upcoming election, not the last one.
His presidency remains an active crime scene.
So the Democrats felt a sense of urgency, but made a strategic error. Back in December I wrote about the dangers of undue haste. Moving too fast, “risks ignoring new evidence that might emerge, failing to pressure key players to testify and/or turn over records, letting the story’s momentum die over the holidays and playing into Trump’s hands.”
But even though the Democrats made a mistake by rushing their investigation, that does not change the Senate’s obligation to conduct a full and fair trial.
Consider what we have learned in the days since the House formally voted to impeach Trump on December 18:
* Just days after the vote, the New York Times reported that: “About 90 minutes after President Trump held a controversial telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in July, the White House budget office ordered the Pentagon to suspend all military aid that Congress had allocated to Ukraine, according to emails released by the Pentagon late Friday.”
* Days later the Times laid out a detailed timeline: “Behind the Ukraine Aid Freeze: 84 Days of Conflict and Confusion,” which highlighted role of Mick Mulvaney. “I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends,” Mulvaney wrote in one email. “Did we ever find out about the money for Ukraine and whether we can hold it back?”
* Then the folks at Just Security reported on a cache of unredacted Ukraine documents that revealed the extent of the Pentagon’s legal concerns about the holdup of the security funds.
The report included an August 30 email from OMB functionary Michael Duffey: “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.”
* Former national security adviser John Bolton announced that he was willing to testify if called by the Senate.
* Lev Parnas released a raft of documents about his interactions with Trump World and Ukraine—and gave a series of interviews tying the president directly to the effort.
* The Government Accountability Office declared that the White House violated federal law when it withheld security aid to Ukraine last year. “Faithful execution of the law does not permit the President to substitute his own policy priorities for those that Congress has enacted into law,” the GAO said. “OMB withheld funds for a policy reason, which is not permitted under the Impoundment Control Act.”
Republicans know all this, and they know that more is likely coming. Elsewhere in the Bulwark today, Tim Miller writes: “They all know Trump is guilty. The only question is whether or not they can avoid admitting this, out loud, before they vote to acquit him. Every action Republicans take in the coming days should be viewed through the lens of them casting about for a strategy that lets them avoid telling voters what they actually believe.”
Every day, the risk gets worse. If and when more evidence comes out, then their votes to suppress witnesses and block evidence will become politically toxic.
And their eventual vote to acquit Trump will be even more dangerous because “exoneration” will further embolden a president who already runs his government like a gangster. How might he react? What might he do? Never forget: This Ukraine adventure began literally the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress and Trump thought that he had been let off the hook for obstructing justice.
And forget the verdict of history: All this and more will be on the record when voters go to the polls ten months from now.
Republicans will own anything—everything—Trump does, because this vote is their last off-ramp.