“Alan Dershowitz unimpeached Richard Nixon today,” tweeted John Dean, the former White House counsel under Nixon, whose testimony helped lead to the 37th president’s resignation.
“This is inane. The president could threaten people (including with our army) unless they voted for him? Could order a breakin of DNC headquarters?” tweeted Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, former acting U.S. solicitor general during the Obama administration. “I’m not sure even Kings had such powers.”
Comedy Central host Trevor Noah picked up on the monarchy theme as well: “This whole idea seems more like a monarchy or something.”
Sherrilyn Ifill, head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund went for a twofer, tweeting, “Dershowitz has just articulated a legal justification for a president to declare himself dictator or King.”
The Dershowitz claim that sparked the flood of outrage was made Wednesday during the Q&A portion of the trial underway in the Senate, as the Trump lawyer put forward law-school-style hypotheticals about presidents behaving badly.
A president could be impeached, Dershowitz said, if he told a foreign leader he was going to withhold funds unless his foreign counterpart built a hotel with his name on it and gave him a million-dollar kickback.
“That’s an easy case,” Dershowitz told senators. “That’s purely corrupt and in the purely private interest.”
On the other hand, if a president does a quid pro quo to get reelected, which is what the House of Representatives has charged Trump with doing, that’s not impeachable. So long as the hypothetical president believes his reelection is in the public interest.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz said.
The argument wasn’t that much beyond some of the claims Dershowitz has made in the past. But in the context of a very real historic impeachment proceeding, he struck a nerve. His words are no longer just idle talk on a cable show, but arguments he is asking the Senate to adopt to acquit a sitting president of wrongdoing.
“Sifting through the logical turd Dershowitz just pinched out in the Senate well there, it’s hard to find the largest corn kernel of logical fallacy,” Stephen Colbert quipped on his CBS show Wednesday night.
That challenge didn’t keep the host from trying though.
Highlighting Dershowitz’s justification for “why any quid pro quo with a foreign government to manipulate our elections would be fine,” Colbert played a video of the lawyer saying, “Your election is in the public interest.”
“No, it’s not,” Colbert said. “Only the public gets to decide what’s in the public interest. Not the politician.”
As Colbert spoke of Dershowitz’s hypothetical quid pro quo — the one where a president withholds assistance to a foreign leader in exchange for a name-branded hotel and a large kickback — the host slipped into his Trump impression.
“Slow down, Dersh,” Colbert-as-Trump said. “These are great ideas. Eric, start taking notes.”
Colbert appeared most shocked by Dershowitz’s other hypothetical: A president not getting impeached even though he does something bad to get reelected because he believes the “national interest will suffer greatly” should he be defeated.
“You can do anything if you believe in yourself?” an incredulous Colbert asked. “What sort of inspirational posters are hanging in Dershowitz’s office? ‘Confidence. When you believe you can fly, you’re always above the law.’ ”
On Comedy Central, Noah marveled at the progression of Trump defenses.
“First, it was, ‘There’s no quid pro quo,’” Noah said. “Then, it was ‘Maybe there was a quid pro quo, but it was to help the country, not Donald Trump.’ Now, it’s like ‘Hey, man, the Donald’s gonna do what the Donald’s gonna do.’ ”
Under Dershowitz’s latest justification, Noah said Trump is free to act however he pleases, including engaging in collusion and obstruction.
“Hell, he can even lock all the Democratic candidates in a room with Eric,” Noah joked, before impersonating Trump. “Just be like, ‘At some point, one of you will eat the other and either way, I win.’ ”
Meanwhile, Nixon and Watergate surfaced most commonly among critics on social media.
Barb McQuade, a University of Michigan Law School professor and former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, slammed Dershowitz’s argument as “absurd,” adding, “That would mean Watergate break-in and coverup were permissible.”
Democrats were equally quick to rebuke Dershowitz and Trump’s legal team.
“It’s all out in the open now,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted. “They’re not even trying to fake it anymore.”
In another tweet, Murphy wrote, “Dershowitz is clearly made for TV, and I guess that’s why Trump insists that he get so much time.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) posed a question to the Office of Congressional Ethics.
“Can I have my staff pressure a foreign government to help my re-election campaign because it’s in the public interest that I get reelected?” Lieu tweeted. “Just kidding. Unlike @realDonaldTrump & crazy @AlanDersh, I follow federal law.”
Others, however, appeared more concerned about what’s to come from Dershowitz as the impeachment trial continues.