Trump's acquittal means there is no bottom
Late Wednesday afternoon, the Senate voted mostly along party lines to acquit President Donald Trump on the two articles of impeachment passed by the House of Representatives in December. By refusing to call witnesses, the Republican majority abdicated its responsibility under the Constitution to carefully or even cursorily consider the evidence before them, permanently tainting the proceedings. More consequentially, Republicans have fully embraced disgraceful and extraordinarily dangerous arguments about the president's essentially unlimited powers. The Senate majority's decision to legitimize, again, President Trump's lawless efforts to undermine U.S. elections places the country at the very precipice of democratic collapse, with only the November general election standing between us and slow-motion authoritarianism.
The threat to the future of democracy feels more tangible than at any time since the immediate aftermath of Trump's shocking 2016 election victory. The hope at the time was that our institutions might save us. But one by one, they have proven incapable of resisting the president's loud and relentless siege. The Supreme Court, whose majority now includes two crucial Trump appointees, has largely rubber-stamped the president's power grabs. Robert Mueller, a man who embodied The Institutions and their supposed disinterested and magical authority, could not be bothered even to make a recommendation about the president's fate, and his investigation into Russia's 2016 election interference and Trump's obstruction of justice was tossed aside. The Attorney General and his Department of Justice have both become unabashed accomplices to the Trump administration's extralegal ambitions.
The implications of this assault are already obvious. The president can't be indicted or brought to justice while in office. He may obstruct justice without limits. He can't be impeached during an election year. He can't commit impeachable offenses in the pursuit of his office because he believes his re-election to be so important to the country's future as to supersede all other considerations. He can't be impeached for an abuse of power because it's not technically a crime, and the Department of Justice is no longer interested in investigating his crimes anyway. The only way to get rid of him is to beat him in an election he is openly undermining. The logic is circular and leads back to where it started: total impunity, endorsed enthusiastically by one of America's two political parties, who correctly perceive this warped system of circular authority as their only way of clinging to power.
From the beginning of the Ukraine scandal, Republicans have mostly advanced bad faith arguments because they are incapable of defending the president's conduct as it actually unfolded. Hence the comical claims that the president's phone call with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky was "perfect" and the lurid allegations about Hunter Biden, which they know to be baseless, and the Orwellian contention that President Trump ordered military aid to the country withheld due to concerns about "corruption." But these lies — what else can they be called? — at least had the virtue of pretending that there was something that the president could do to justify removal from office. That fiction was dispelled over the past week, as the hallucinatory conspiracy-mongering that was the House GOP's strategy fell apart in two different ways.
First, the president's lawyers claimed, among other things, that because President Trump believes his re-election is in the national interest, it somehow exempts his conduct from legal ramifications. After a longwinded introduction in which he argued that the architects of the Constitution did not intend for abuse of power to be an impeachable offense, Alan Dershowitz made a set of remarkable claims. "Presidents often have mixed motives that include partisan personal benefits along with the national interest," he claimed. President Trump believes that his re-election is in the national interest, and therefore the partisan motivation in his quest to have Ukraine fabricate investigations into the leading Democratic contender for the nomination can be waved away.
The trouble is with Dershowitz's contention that Trump had a "mixed motive," because it suggests there was some underlying policy goal behind the whole escapade. To illustrate the point, Dershowitz gives us a thought experiment. "Let's assume a Democratic president tells Israel that foreign aid authorized by Congress will not be sent or an Oval Office meeting will not be scheduled unless the Israelis stop building settlements. Quid pro quo." Yet in this example there is a goal that can be construed as both in the U.S. national interest and in the re-election prospects for that hypothetical president. With Trump, there was no policy goal, and Republicans have failed to make any kind of remotely convincing case that there was. Bipartisan majorities favor what is ostensibly the American policy of providing military aid to protect Ukraine from further Russian aggression.
Withholding the aid therefore had nothing to do with a "policy dispute" and everything to do with the president's personal interest. We know that because the aid was released without the investigations Trump was demanding of Zelenksy through his cabal of half-wit conspirators. They didn't achieve a policy goal, they got caught. The only matter of any importance to Trump or anyone in his sordid orbit was the 2020 election and the desire to enlist Zelenksy in an effort to sabotage it. That's not a mixed motive. It's pure corruption, laced with cynicism and the exercise of brute power utterly unmoored from even a cursory examination of our national interests. The idea that the Founders would not object to this behavior is beyond parody.
The second way that the House GOP's Burisma fairy tale fell apart was that several prominent Republican senators admitted that the president did everything he was accused of doing but that they just couldn't be bothered voting for removal. "It was wrong for President Trump to mention former Vice President Biden on that phone call, and it was wrong for him ask a foreign country to investigate a political rival," said Sen. Susan Collins. Others went further.
Sen. Marco Rubio: "Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a president from office." In other words, the president committed impeachable offenses, but in the opinion of Marco Rubio, it would be bad for the country to bring him to justice.
Sen. Lamar Alexander: "There is no need for more evidence to prove something that has already been proven."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski: "The president's behavior was shameful and wrong. His personal interests do not take precedent over those of this great nation."
All of the people making these statements voted to acquit.
Maybe Rubio and Murkowski and all of the tsk-tsking moderates and opportunists really believe that removing President Trump would plunge the country into some kind of partisan pandemonium that would tear us asunder. But their choice instead is to throw us to the wolves, to protect President Trump and Republican power over and above any other competing principle, knowing full well that Trump himself openly harbors authoritarian ambitions.
It's my hope, said Murkowski on the Senate floor Tuesday, "that we finally found bottom here." I hope she can one day see the irony — her vote, in fact, will enable Trump to continue digging. Unless he is stopped, there can be no bottom, because his lack of principle and decency is total. That leaves the November elections themselves, already hobbled in their own legitimacy by the Electoral College's majority-warping mechanisms and the Supreme Court's repeated endorsements of voter suppression and now laid bare to whatever immoral or illegal assaults the president and his allies wish to mount on them, as the final redoubt of institutional defense against a corrupt madman and a political party willing to do anything to preserve the power of a dying majority.
What precisely these awful people would do with another four years is anyone's guess. But they would leave American democracy gravely, perhaps irreparably damaged. Democrats fighting over the minutiae of Iowa delegate allocation procedures need to unify quickly around whoever wins their nominating contests, so that we can focus on defeating this dire threat to the country with the seriousness of purpose that it demands.
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