The impeachment inquiry is laying him bare. It’s not a pretty sight.
I was based in Washington and reported from Capitol Hill during Bill Clinton’s impeachment, which was the last time the country entered waters like these. It was ugly, and Democrats and Republicans traded vicious words.
But Clinton never publicly accused his detractors of treason or floated the idea that one of them be arrested on those grounds, as Donald Trump just did with Adam Schiff.
Clinton and his defenders raised the specter of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” to use Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, thus asserting that he was being persecuted for his politics, not punished for his misdeeds.
But they didn’t insist, as Trump and his defenders routinely do, that a vital part of the federal government was an evil cabal intent on undermining our democratic processes, which is Trump’s self-serving characterization of the intelligence community. Their central strategy wasn’t to ignite a full-blown crisis of confidence in the institutions of government. They weren’t serving dire notice, as Trump essentially is, that if the president goes down, he’s taking everyone and everything else with him.The Clintons possessed and projected a moral arrogance that was laughably oxymoronic under the circumstances. And they and other prominent Democrats junked the party’s supposed concern for women’s empowerment to savage Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and others who came forward with claims about the president’s extramarital sexual activity, including serious accusations of sexual violence.
But they didn’t equate the potential fall of the president with the fall of the Republic. They didn’t go full apocalypse. Bill Clinton didn’t prophesy that his impeachment would lead to a kind of “civil war” from which the country would “never heal,” as Trump did by tweeting an evangelical pastor’s comments on Fox News along those lines.
I wrote last week that the prospect of Trump’s impeachment terrified me, and one of the main reasons I cited was what we’re seeing now: his histrionic response, which is untethered from any sense of honor, civic concern or real patriotism.
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He’s not like most of his predecessors in the White House, who had some limits, at least a few scruples and the capacity to feel shame. Their self-pity wasn’t this unfathomably deep, their delusions of martyrdom this insanely grand. “There has been no President in the history of our Country who has been treated so badly as I have,” he tweeted last week, and the violins have wailed only louder and weepier since.While there were fellow narcissists among his forebears, was there a single nihilist like Trump? I doubt it, and so the current waters are in fact uncharted, because the ship of state has a sort of madman at its helm.
That he’s fighting back by impugning his critics’ motives, stonewalling investigators and carping about the media shouldn’t disturb anyone, not if we’re being grown-ups. Richard Nixon, confronted with his impeachment, thrashed and seethed. Clinton assembled a war room in an effort to outwit his adversaries. That’s the nature of politics. That’s the right of the accused.
But in the mere week since a formal impeachment inquiry was announced, Trump has already gone much farther than that and behaved in ways that explode precedent, offend decency and boggle the mind. We’re fools if we don’t brace for more and worse.
For grotesque example, he has suggested — repeatedly — that government officials who tattled about his crooked conversation with the Ukrainian president are spies who deserve to be executed. Had any other president done that, many Americans would speak of nothing else for the next month.
But from Trump, such a horror wasn’t even surprising, and it competed for attention with so many other outrages that it was dulled, the way so much of his unconscionable behavior is. When you churn out a disgrace a minute and no one expects anything nobler, you’re inoculated by your own awfulness.
He has taken his vilification of the media to new depths, content on this front, as on others, to pump Americans full of a toxic cynicism so long as he profits from it. He and his handmaidens have disseminated distortion after distortion, lie upon lie, including the claim that deep-state officials tweaked the criteria for whistle-blowers just so that someone could ensnare him.
They have instructed Americans not to believe their own eyes, their own ears, their own intelligence. They mean to put truth itself up for grabs, no matter the fallout.
Lindsey Graham, the sycophant of the century, called the whistle-blower’s complaint a setup, as if it didn’t rest on the sturdy foundation of a reconstructed transcript — released by the White House — that shows Trump imploring a foreign leader to do political dirty work for him.
Trump keeps saying it was a “perfect” call, which is like seeing Dom Pérignon in a puddle of sewage. Then again, his presidency has long depended on such optical illusions.
There’s light, though, and it’s this: As corrosive as his tirades are, they may also be what does him in. He’s poised to take this persecution complex too far.
Already, there has been a swell of support for impeachment, according to new polls released by CNN and Monmouth University, and I bet that trend continues as revelations of his wrongdoing cascade and as he wildly overreacts.
That probably wouldn’t be enough to get Republican senators to convict him and remove him from office, should the House follow through with impeachment and a Senate trial ensue. But it would affect November 2020.
He’s in a bind, because his burn-down-the-house defense against impeachment makes the best case that he must be impeached — that a leader with no bounds and no bottom can’t be allowed to rage on unimpeded. The impeachment inquiry is laying Trump bare. As scary as that is for us, it may be even scarier for him.
The implication was that the court of public opinion is trying not Brett Kavanaugh but the very idea of the All-American boy—good-natured, mischievous, but harmless. That Brett Kavanaugh was a decent kid who may have erred here and there but only did so in good fun, and that investigating the allegations levelled by Ford, Deborah Ramirez, and Julie Swetnick in earnest would amount to marching Tom Sawyer, Opie Taylor, and the Beaver single-file to the guillotine.
.. This was what moved Senators John Cornyn and Ben Sasse to seemingly genuine tears during Kavanaugh’s testimony. But it was Lindsey Graham who went apoplectic. “What you want to do is destroy this guy’s life, hold this seat open, and hope you win in 2020,” he shouted at Democrats during his turn for questions. “This is the most unethical sham since I’ve been in politics.”
“Boy, y’all want power,” he continued. “God, I hope you never get it.”
.. The Kavanaugh nomination is now, in part, a referendum on the #MeToomovement—on whether the goodness of successful men, with families and the respect of their peers, should be taken for granted, and whether the women who have suffered abuse, but who don’t possess the kind of evidence a prosecutor might find satisfying, should remain silent and invisible lest they sully sterling reputations.
.. Kavanaugh—by appearing in a prime-time TV interview, and in casting the accusations, incredibly, as a conspiracy against him orchestrated by allies of the Clintons—has shown himself to be exactly the political operative he was when he was working under Ken Starr and as a hired gun for the Bush Administration.
.. He is, backed into a corner and stripped of his robes, the quintessential Fox News man—both gladiator and perpetual victim, another “white male,” as Graham called himself on Friday, told to shut up and go away by feminists and a vindictive left.
.. Belligerent, wounded, proud, timorous, and entitled—a man given to gaslighting and dissembling under pressure.
.. Should he be confirmed, he will have the power to color rulings from the highest court in the land with the biases and emotionality he has revealed this past week until, if he so chooses, he drops dead.
.. Conspiracy theories about Kavanaugh’s accusers—that Ramirez was an agent of George Soros, for instance, or that Kavanaugh’s mother, a district-court judge, had ruled against Ford’s parents in a foreclosure case—were offered not only by the likes of the Daily Caller and Trumpists at the site Big League Politics this week but also by the NeverTrumper Erick Erickson, who has called Ford a “partisan hack,” and a reporter for National Review.
.. It was Ed Whelan—who heads something called the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is a man Washington conservatives consider “a sober-minded straight shooter,” according to Politico—who potentially defamed a Georgetown Prep alumnus with unfounded speculation about a Kavanaugh “doppelgänger,” a theory that could have originated on the right-wing message boards that birthed Pizzagate and are now fuelling QAnon.
.. The kind of discrediting rhetoric that was deployed by supporters of Trump and Roy Moore in the wake of allegations against them—that the charges had come after too many years, that the women bear blame or should be regarded skeptically for being in situations in which abuse might take place—was let loose by respected figures like the National Review editor, Rich Lowry. “Why,” he asked, of Swetnick, on Wednesday, “would she constantly attend parties where she believed girls were being gang-raped?”
.. And the Times’Bari Weiss and the former Bush Administration press secretary Ari Fleischer, both on the center-right, were among those who suggested that Kavanaugh should be advanced even if the allegations levelled by Ford are true.
.. It is often argued by this crowd that broad criticisms of the right risk pushing sensible conservatives toward Trumpism. But the events of the past two weeks have made plain just how illusory and superficial the differences between the respectable establishment and the Trumpists really are.
.. it cannot be said now, as it was in November, 2016, that the man in question is the best or only option for those committed to conservative policy objectives. Backing Brett Kavanaugh is a choice conservatives have made over viable alternatives—qualified conservative candidates who could be spirited through the nomination process before November’s elections or in the lame-duck session by a Republican Senate that has already proved itself capable of sidestepping the required procedural hurdles.
They have chosen this course because the Kavanaugh nomination has presented the movement with a golden opportunity to accomplish two things more valuable, evidently, than merely placing another conservative on the court: standing against the new culture of accountability for sexual abuse and, at least as important, thumbing their noses at an angry and despairing Democratic Party.