Saturday, November 23, 2019

Trump’s Capitol Hill GOP: The Sin of Collaboration

In Stephen Crane’s classic short story of the Old West, “The Blue Hotel,” a saloon shooting triggers anguished post-mortem handwringing over how matters could ever have come to this pass. During this conversation, the story’s “Easterner,” the tale’s mouthpiece for Crane, bitterly explains who’s responsible for the death of “the Swede”: 

“Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you—you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight…. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede.”

At some point in the not-too-distant future, Republican officials on Capitol Hill, like the guilty bystanders in Crane’s tale, will lament a murder. The corpse will be American democracy, dead of a thousand cuts at the hands of Donald Trump and his minions. But if they are honest, GOP Congressmen and Senators must, like the Easterner, admit that it was their own cowardice that enabled this disaster. 

Criminality and Complicity in Broad Daylight

The Capitol Hill GOP’s dilemma is inescapable now with the impeachment hearings publicly broadcast—the outcome that so many rashly begged for just a few weeks ago. Now, Republican insubstantiality and sycophancy are apparent for all to see.

In this, they resemble the man to whose whims they have tied themselves, for the outrageous crimes of Donald Trump have taken place in broad daylight. 

The President operates with such impunity not only because he has escaped being held to account his entire life (his financial messes were handled by his father, his legal ones by Roy Cohn and Michael Cohen), but also because the Capitol Hill GOP—most of them conservative Republicans for far longer than Trump ever was—have never properly exercised their oversight of Trump. 

Oh, yes, Mitt Romney has managed to get under the President’s skin. But more often, conscience-stricken members, like Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, will redden, stutter, gasp out that what Trump has done is “inappropriate,” if that—then dash for a side door, hoping for no more encounters with reporters asking uncomfortable questions or with GOP voters in hissy fits over even this mealy-mouthed criticism.

I suppose we should be glad that Collins and a select few colleagues like Ben Sasse and Lisa Murkowski are occasionally caught out in public with a sense of shame. The rest, when they are not engaged in downright obfuscation, can only resort to juvenile stunts and sideshows more worthy of a lunchroom full of middle-schoolers (e.g., storming a secure room where the House Intelligence Committee was holding closed-door hearings, then ordering Chick-fil-A and pizza) than serious legislators tasked with running this country.

Over the last two weeks, as Esquire’s Jack Holmes makes clear, GOP members of the Intelligence Committee tried out 22 different defenses: Where was the whistleblower? The meeting was being held behind closed doors! The testimony was based on hearsay! Foreign-born witnesses have dual loyalties! What’s so unusual about aid being held up? Did the Ukrainians even realize the aid had been delayed?

One by one they all fell apart, as the defense of the indefensible invariably does.

A Gallery of Apologists-Turned-Collaborators

The obstructionism of the President is now matched by these apologists-turned-collaborators. Let’s take a moment to highlight their roles:

*Mitch McConnell: The Capitol Hill GOP takes its marching orders from the Senate Majority Leader. Despite a powerful GOP tendency among voters in Kentucky, however, McConnell has only a 36% poll rating back home, so he knows his only hope is to cling desperately to Trump, despite the grimaces that invariably cross his face whenever asked to comment on the President’s latest outrage. All of that would have been politics as usual, except that McConnell bears an especially heavy responsibility for the lack of a bipartisan consensus against a Russian cyber threat that, as Fiona Hill noted at the impeachment hearings, affects all parties. In the closing days of the 2016 race, “Moscow Mitch” not only refused President Obama’s request to issue a bipartisan statement decrying Russian interference, but said he would regard any public challenge to the Russians as a partisan act.

*Lindsey Graham: The transformation of the senior Senator from South Carolina from one of Trump’s sharpest campaign critics into what New York Magazine’s Andrew Sullivan calls “perhaps the most contemptible figure of the last couple of years” has been so sharp that it has provoked much speculation on what could have caused it. Does he hope to “influence” the President by allying with him, as Graham has stated, fear losing his reelection bid—or does something unknown influence him? Whatever the case, at this point, “Leningrad Lindsey” has left no effective room between himself and the President. He may have acted most shamelessly and hypocritically in the last few days, however: Backing a President who has invoked executive privilege to bar witness testimony and the release of documents, while urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to release documents related to Joe and Hunter Biden. In currying favor with a President whose personal and policy preferences shift without warning, he has also eliminated any hope of working with Democrats on a bipartisan basis in any future Congress.

*Ted Cruz: Nobody would have blamed the Senator from Texas if he had punched Trump in the mouth after the reality show star-turned-candidate speculated that his opponent’s father had somehow been involved with the assassination of JFK and retweeted a Facebook ad that mocked the looks of Cruz’s wife in comparison with that of Melanie Trump. But, after correctly labeling candidate Trump as a “pathological liar” and a “bully,” Cruz has not only welcomed Trump’s support since then but has studiously avoided any occasion when he might criticize him in the slightest.

*Ron Johnson: The Senator from Wisconsin had been one of the principal backers of aid for Ukraine. Yet he has continually excused Trump’s conduct throughout this process. Like many Republicans, he also suffers from convenient lapses of memory. When he criticized impeachment as a process hurtful to the United States last week, he was reminded by NBC’s Chuck Todd that he had called for Hillary Clinton’s impeachment in 2016, only a week before an election he had predicted she would win.

*Devin Nunes: The ranking GOP member of the House Intelligence Committee hardly distinguished himself when his party controlled the house and he controlled the committee. (For instance, after a late-night visit to the White House, Nunes claimed to have found evidence of wrongdoing by committee officials—a backdoor attempt to lend credence to a presidential tweet claiming that President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. And, according to one of Rudy Giuiliani’s indicted ex-associates, Nunes met in December 2018 with a former Ukrainian official to get dirt on Joe Biden.) A year of powerlessness has only made Nunes whinier and more pathetic. Critics of the hearings’ “boredom” factor might have considered how much of that resulted from Nunes’ misuse of what he sarcastically called his “magic minutes”. He may have congratulated witnesses for passing the Democrats’ “Star-Chamber Auditions,” but he seemed to be actively auditioning himself to play the role left vacant by ousted California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher as “Putin’s favorite Congressman.”

*Jim Jordan: Jacketless, snarling, sneering, Jordan inspired one of the most indelible moments of these past two weeks. His constant attempts to interrupt David Holmes about the cellphone conversation in Kiev between Trump and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland led to the witness’s involuntary eye-roll—the best show of non-verbal contempt for a former wrestling coach who might as well have been a mud wrestler. The hyper-aggressive style of Jordan may have played well with Trump and with the most avid watchers of Fox News, but not beyond that natural base. He also parroted two of Trump’s smelliest historical lies and distortions by claiming that Democrats have “never accepted the will of 63 million Americans, they never accepted the fact that Donald Trump won an Electoral College landslide.”  (For the record: the 63 million Trump voters were outnumbered by the approximately 66 million Hillary Clinton voters, and the 56.5% of the Electoral College vote won by Trump ranked only 46th out of 58 Presidential elections—exceeded by, on two occasions, Bill Clinton—who, you might recall, Republicans had no issue with “reversing the will of the people.”)

*Will Hurd: No House Republican has disappointed more than this retiring member from Texas. His closing statement in the hearings—that Trump’s actions represented “inappropriate, misguided foreign policy” that” undermined our national security and undercut Ukraine,” yet still was not impeachable—may have doomed any chance for anything other than a straight party-line impeachment vote. His prior tentative complaints about interference—“I think some of these things are indeed damning” —brought down such a hailstorm from Republican voters that he has ignominiously backpedaled. Even looming retirement from the House hasn’t encouraged him to speak or act more freely. It seems that Hurd, the hope of Republican moderates, has morphed into one of the GOP invertebrates. Whatever your scariest, most dismaying horror show might be—“The Wolf Man,” “The Fly,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Night of the Living Dead”—this surpasses it.

The Plight of the GOP ‘Moderates’ and Announced Retirees

Hurd—as well as another recent GOP announced retiree, New York’s Peter King—is not alone: As of now, 19 House GOP members—including six from swing districts—are stepping down, along with four Senate Republicans. Their calculus is simple: in the House, why fall into irrelevance as a member of a minority party, all the while forced to explain away the latest outrage from the Oval Office or to fend attacks on their flanks from within their own party?

Surprisingly, however, virtually none in the current crop, even with the greater freedom to speak their minds that retirement bestows, has given signs of breaking ranks with Trump.

The best explanation of their plight might have been offered by The New York Times'  Paul Krugman, not normally a favorite columnist of mine. But his analysis of the alternatives offered to retiring GOP retirees—commentary gigs with Fox News, cushy jobs with right-wing think tanks, and posts lobbying the very branch of the government they might have felt tempted to criticize—cogently points up the not-so-subtle carrots being offered to anyone who toes the line. The result: Trump’s protests this week notwithstanding, “Never Trumpers” are an endangered species, especially in Congress.

Trump: More Than a Vulgarian—A Criminal

A Facebook friend and fellow high school alum said he agreed that no President was as narcissistic or egotistical as Trump, and at least several other friends agreed with that. Although true, their assessments of the President miss the mark widely.

What they cannot grasp is that Trump is not imperiled now because he is a fake artist of the deal, a rash decision-maker, a tyro ignorant of history, an overgrown bratty billionaire who never mastered elementary impulse control, a vulgarian lacking dignity, or a Visigoth who violated the norms of D.C. politics and diplomacy—although, most certainly, he is all of these things.

He is in trouble because he is a common cheat who accepted foreign help to gain the Presidency and an extortionist now grasping at the assistance of another, fledging nation to win re-election. All the money in the world still makes him no better than a three-card monte chiseler scamming the unsuspecting on the streets of New York.

And that, my friends, is simply not acceptable. Like many Americans, I cherish the right to throw out errant officeholders at each election. But Trump’s dragging Americans down into his concocted Ukrainian strategy nullifies the effectiveness of those votes. A tainted election corrodes the foundations of democracy itself.

Surmounting the Impeachment Obstacles

The obstacles blocking the Democrats’ removal of Trump are considerable, starting with the constitutionally required two-thirds majority in the Senate, along with Americans’ longtime reluctance to get rid of opponents by any means other than the ballot box. 

To that can now be added a right-wing network, abetted by talk radio and often bot-activated social media, that Richard Nixon could have killed for, as well as still-favorable economic winds (a factor that also aided Bill Clinton, but—with an OPEC embargo fueling inflation—hurt Nixon).

But no obstacle may be more significant than fear—the fear of many incumbent Republicans of incurring the wrath of their outraged base and of staring into the vacuum of involuntary retirement at the polls. (Support of Trump among white evangelicals Republicans, in many ways the shock troops of the base, runs to 99%.)

Some Republicans, such as former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist Marc A. Thiessen, wonder why Congress can’t simply censure Trump, and be done with it. 

Besides forgetting that Trump wouldn’t be done with it without retaliating against participants in this humiliation, they ignore their own rationale for rejecting that alternative against Clinton in 1999: that it would be a mere slap on the wrist for felonious misconduct. 

Moreover, a censure vote might not even win a majority of Republican votes. After all, most have argued not merely that Trump’s actions were not impeachment-worthy but have also bought into the whole “fictional narrative” of Ukrainian interference that Fiona Hill warned against. How, then, could these GOP Senators censor Trump without also censoring themselves?
Through their pathetic inability even to find a clear, ongoing, unmistakable voice for denouncing Trump on earlier occasions, the Capitol Hill GOP has only emboldened him to try to get away with more. The initial embarrassment so many expressed when Trump stood next to Putin in Helsinki and accepted his assurances that American intelligence agencies were wrong about Russian interference in 2016 was followed by delay and even inaction in urging the President to take meaningful measures to guard against a repetition four years later.

Actually, there is an example closer in time even than that. One day after Robert Mueller testified about his probe on Capitol Hill, in an appearance regarded as so ineffective as to leave prospects for impeachment stillborn, Trump was making his now-infamous July 25 phone call to Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky. With the coast clear, the freshly enabled President could move on yet another front in his attempt to secure foreign assistance for himself--thus sustaining himself in office as he and his family continue to violate the emoluments clause of the Constitution.

Democrats, then, have no choice but to hold Trump accountable on this issue, because if they do not, his bullying instinct will sense their weakness and he will attempt something infinitely more brazen. The real issue is whether Republican Congressmen and Senators can conceive of any value in holding office other than winning re-election. 

If they cannot, then what the hell are they doing down there?
Where Are Today’s Weickers and Goldwaters?

In times past, Congressmen and Senators of the same party as the President might have usually supported his legislative efforts, but would have drawn the line when he pursued unconstitutional or foolhardy initiatives. Both liberal and conservative Democrats united, for different reasons, against FDR’s 1937 court-packing scheme, as did prominent members such as William Fulbright, Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy when LBJ escalated American participation in Vietnam. 

No such independence has been on display among GOP members of the House Intelligence Committee. In fact, intelligence itself has been in short supply on that side of the aisle. Evidently, they have surveyed the current GOP environment, noted that those not embarrassed into retirement have been cowed into complicity, and embraced the second choice.

Look in vain in these hearings for a GOP equivalent of stalwarts from different parts of the party who during the Watergate crisis were ready to criticize Richard Nixon without equivocation: liberal Lowell Weicker and conservative Barry Goldwater. 

No, Comrades McConnell, Graham, Nunez, and Jordan didn’t deviate in the slightest from supporting Trump, not daring to utter what these earlier counterparts understood: that a President unrestrained in using power was a threat not just to their country but to the long-term health of the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower.

Which Republican Will Ask, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’

A year or so ago, “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted the dilemma of Capitol Hill Republicans in the Age of Trump with deadly accuracy. “Who needs a spine?” a legislator wonders to himself, just as a bystander shouts, “Didn’t Republicans once stand for things?” like free trade, strong alliances, reducing the deficits, standing up against brutal regimes—and, the item that gets the lawmaker not just unable to rise but bent through his legs looking up, “The FBI—You were BFFs!!!”

As it happens, there are precious few Republicans with enough spine left to ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”:

*None wonders how, of all the leaders in the world, Vladimir Putin is the one never criticized by Trump. 

*None wonders why, at every turn, a statement by the President and his camp has proven to be incorrect (e.g., Don Jr. was not meeting with foreign operatives about “adoption policies”). 

*None wonders why a leader never known for honesty—one even forced to settle legal disputes against his foundation and “university”—now interests himself in corruption in another country.

*None wonders why, of all Presidential candidates in our history, only Trump was screaming about electoral fraud before a single vote was counted.

*None wonders why this President shouts so much about “McCarthyism” when he was tutored so thoroughly by Roy Cohn, the aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy who carried on his boss’s tactic of generating reckless, baseless charges when he himself was attacked.

*None wonders why a President who cries about “due process” has spent three years egging on crowds to chant about an opponent, “Lock her up,” as if the United States was no better than a banana republic.

*None wonders why, despite being told by then-National Security adviser H.R. McMaster and other intelligence experts that rumors of Ukrainian interference in 2016 were the product of Russian propaganda, Trump proceeded to tweet, “Ukrainian efforts to sabotage Trump campaign ‘quietly working to boost Clinton.’ So where is the investigation A.G. [Jeff Sessions].” 

*None wonders why, two years to the day after issuing that tweet, Trump decided to push a newly elected Ukrainian leader around by personally urging him to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden.

The ‘Palpable Device’ Seen by All Trump’s Collaborators

Nearly three centuries before Stephen Crane assessed the responsibility of collaborators, William Shakespeare had done so in Richard III. In his masterly analysis of Shakespeare’s politically tinged work, Tyrant, Harvard’s Stephen Greenblatt highlights one lowly “Scrivener” who, after copying out an indictment against Richard’s onetime conspirator Hastings, recognizes its absurd falsity (Hastings did not use witchcraft to make Richard’s arm wither) and its faked timeline (the charges were put together well in advance).

Anyone can understand what is really going on, the scrivener thinks to himself:

“Why who's so gross,
That seeth not this palpable device?
Yet who's so blind, but says he sees it not?
Bad is the world, and all will come to naught
When such ill dealing must be seen in thought.”

Trump’s Capitol Hill collaborators are now full participants in his “ill dealing.” Whether the President survives the impeachment process or not, they, like Richard’s collaborators in London—and Crane’s in the saloon—will never again breathe another easy night.

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