What does the trial of a group of alleged terrorists have to do with impeachment? When seen from the perspective not of one president but of what Republicans ask all of us to accept and how they frame their own moral culpability, they are waypoints on the same devolutionary road.
To understand how, we’ll have to briefly revisit one of the darkest chapters in U.S. history, the torture program initiated by the George W. Bush administration as part of its “War on Terror.” After the September 11 attacks, the administration began scooping up suspected members of al-Qaeda all over the world and interrogating them to stop future attacks. Worried that they weren’t getting enough information, they decided that the prisoners should be tortured. The problem was that no one knew how to go about it.
So the CIA hired two psychologists, James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, to design a torture program. Neither had ever interrogated a prisoner in their lives, but they somehow convinced the government to pay them $81 million to devise a series of techniques they essentially cribbed from a 1950s-era military program meant to teach service members how to survive the kinds of torture American POWs had endured at the hands of China and North Korea during the Korean War.
From the beginning, the Bush administration attempted to minimize what it was doing, portraying it as the gentle application of pressure to encourage prisoners to be more forthcoming. They devised the euphemism “enhanced interrogation” as though it were some kind of sophisticated program, when in fact it was designed and implemented by people who had no idea what they were doing.
The truth of what went on was utterly horrific. Among the methods of torture to which prisoners were subjected were waterboarding, beatings, extreme cold, sleep deprivation, nudity as a means of humiliation, stress positions (which are designed to induce excruciating pain), and even mock executions (a favorite of the Iranian regime, it should be noted).
The use of torture was a clear violation of both U.S. law and international treaties to which the country is a signatory. So the Bush administration’s lawyers drew up legal opinions with new and bizarre ideas to justify their actions; one such document claimed that if the torture wasn’t so unbearable that the victim went into organ failure, then it wasn’t technically torture.
Alongside those morally revolting arguments was a more practical justification: The danger of more attacks was so urgent that almost anything was justified. This is still the argument the torture advocates make.
Mitchell and Jessen are now defending the program in pretrial proceedings in the case against Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other al-Qaeda defendants. If you’re wondering why Mohammad is on trial almost 17 years after he was captured, it’s in large part because convicting him in court — where rules still apply — has been complicated by the fact that he was tortured for so long. But as Mitchell said on the stand Tuesday, “We were trying to save American lives.”
So what does this have to do with the Trump impeachment? In the early 2000s, a Republican administration and nearly the entirety of the Republican Party discarded what we assumed was an almost-universal moral position, that torture is wrong. But when they did so, they felt it necessary to clothe their ethical abdication in a combination of euphemism, bogus legal justifications, and fear-mongering.
Consider where we are today. The Republican Party is in a loosely analogous situation: The president of the United States did something awful, and they are attempting to defend it. But this time around, they can barely muster the energy to dress up what he did in a covering of moral argument.
Their defenses of Trump’s behavior are halfhearted at best. Instead, they’re finding the safest harbor in arguing that sure, Trump did what he was accused of, and if you don’t like it you can shove it. Or as Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said, “Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy.” Abuse of power, they say, is not technically a crime and therefore he can’t be impeached for it.
But here’s a key difference: You can’t argue that Trump’s actions, like Bush’s, were in some way a misguided attempt to save U.S. lives or even serve U.S. interests. The point of Republicans’ final moral descent is to protect Trump himself. And that of course is why he’s being impeached: Not just because he coerced a foreign leader, but because he did so to serve his own personal interests.
Republicans now believe that if Trump can get away with this, then he should get away with this. There are no more principles, not even ones they feel they need to pretend to believe in. There is only Trump; he alone is what they serve.
The story of the Republican embrace of torture reminds us that Trump didn’t create the moral vacuum that lies within the GOP. He exploited it to get elected and counts on it to survive, but it was there before. And their pathetic sycophancy toward him shows that there are absolutely no actions they will not defend, even those done for the worst possible reasons.
Remember that when every Republican in the Senate votes to acquit Trump of the charges against him.