It is another of President Trump’s dubious achievements to turn the ultimate constitutional check on presidential abuses of power into an utter farce. Watching Republican senators complain that there is “nothing new” in the case made by House impeachment managers, while they are actively opposing the introduction of new evidence and new testimony, is confirmation of barefaced bad faith. In this matter, elected Republicans are mainly serving, not the president, and certainly not the republic, but themselves. Having decided that no amount of evidence would be sufficient for conviction, they realize that the presentation of a full and compelling case would convict them of servility and institutional surrender. So a quick and dirty Senate trial is the best way to limit the exposure of their malpractice.
This crime against democracy is compounded by the eagerness of Republicans to use impeachment as a fundraising opportunity and method to energize base voters. The theory seems to be: If you are going to betray the constitutional order, you might as well profit from it.
In the impeachment trial, all the dismal signs point to acquittal at any cost. And it is not the first time the president has skated. Despite compelling evidence of wrongdoing and obstruction of justice in the Mueller report, Trump largely escaped accountability (even as many of his smarmy advisers did not escape jail). The appearance of vindication in this case immediately preceded the president’s decision to squeeze an embattled foreign power for his political benefit. Give Trump an inch, and he’ll take Ukraine.
How has the president largely avoided the consequences of his corruption? By employing the methods of his mentor Roy Cohn. Admit nothing. Stonewall investigators. Defy subpoenas. Viciously attack opponents. Flood the zone with exculpatory lies. Feel no shame. Show no mercy. Claim anything short of prison to be complete exoneration.
In terms that would have gladdened the heart of Richard Nixon in his day, the coverup is working. Senate Republicans seem determined to cover up for Trump’s coverup. What is essentially state-run media — Fox News and conservative talk radio — have created a narrative of establishment persecution that covers up for the Senate’s coverup of the Trump coverup. The president is protected by layer upon layer of obfuscation, misdirection and deception. Gradually at first, but now in a sudden rush, the norms of truthfulness, public service and ethical behavior have given way. And the message has been sent to Trump and future iterations of Trump: Corruption has no consequence.
This is a danger to the country because success breeds replication. Politicians who never dreamed of being anarchic and transgressive now conduct their public business like the Marx Brothers on a caffeine high. Consider Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) responding to a perfectly appropriate question by CNN’s Manu Raju by saying, “You’re a liberal hack.” It is nothing new for a senator to show his or her temper. But McSally then posted her petulance on Twitter and began raising money on the basis of it. It is human to lose your cool; taking pride in it is to lose one’s marbles. But this is normal political behavior in the age of Trump.
There is further danger in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s likely acquittal by the Senate. The president never views a near-miss as an opportunity for reflection and reformation. He sees it as permission to indulge his every urge. And his most consistent urge has been to seek unfair advantage in the upcoming presidential election. The months between Senate acquittal and the November vote will be fertile ground for further cheating.
And the election itself presents the greatest danger. Trump avoided accountability after the Mueller probe. He is likely to avoid accountability for the Ukraine squeeze. That leaves one last source of accountability — the election in November. This will be a test, not of the Republican Party, but of the republic.
Every presidential election is important. This one will have an added dimension. It will be more than a referendum on the president. It will be a referendum on the moral and ethical standards we apply to our political life. Will corruption, cruelty and coverups be excused and encouraged? Or will the boundaries of integrity, honesty and public spirit be redrawn?
Congress — with the large exception of the House majority — has largely failed to defend the democratic virtues essential to self-government. American voters had better do better.