The House Republicans’ Slimy Defense of Donald Trump

Maybe, in some alternate universe, on the second day of the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing about the Democrats’ articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, Republicans on the committee would have presented a detailed and painstakingly constructed argument to show why the evidence doesn’t support the charges against the President. But, in actuality, the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee spent much of their time talking about—you guessed it—Hunter Biden.

During the morning session, the committee voted along party lines to reject a G.O.P. effort to strike the first article of impeachment, which accuses Trump of abusing his Presidential power by pressuring the President of Ukraine to dig up dirt on his domestic political rivals. After that, Representative Matt Gaetz, a Republican whose district is in the Florida Panhandle, introduced a separate amendment. This one would have struck the reference to Joe Biden in the first article of impeachment and replaced it with a reference to his son and to Burisma, the Ukrainian company that added Hunter to its board for a time.

Gaetz, a Trump überloyalist and an N.R.A. favorite who once introduced legislation to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, began by rambling on about what Hunter Biden did or didn’t do for Burisma. Then he brought up the younger Biden’s history of drug problems, reading a passage from a lengthy Profile of him, by The New Yorker’s Adam Entous, which describes how on one occasion “a white powdery substance” was found in a rental car he had driven. “I don’t want to make light of anybody’s substance-abuse issues,” Gaetz said. “But it’s a little hard to believe that Burisma hired Hunter Biden to resolve their international disputes when he could not resolve his own dispute with Hertz rental cars over leaving cocaine and a crack pipe in the car.”

Even by the base standards of today’s House G.O.P., which often resembles a ragtag protest group more than a government party, this was a slimy effort at diversion. “This is about distraction, distraction, distraction,” the veteran Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, of Texas, accurately pointed out. But it was left to Hank Johnson, a seven-term Democratic congressman from Georgia, to deliver the most effective put-down of Gaetz. “The pot calling the kettle black is not something that we should do,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what members, if any, have had any problems with substance abuse, been busted in a D.U.I.—I don’t know. But, if I did, I wouldn’t raise it against anyone on this committee.” The titters that went around the hearing room as Johnson was speaking indicated that at least some of those present knew what he was referring to.

Late one night in 2008, a police deputy stopped Gaetz’s car, for speeding, not far from the congressman’s home. In his incident report, the deputy said that Gaetz smelled of beer and that “his eyes were watery and bloodshot, and he swayed and staggered when he got out of the car.” The deputy arrested Gaetz and took him to a police station, where he was booked and photographed. For reasons that have never been entirely clear, the charges against Gaetz were later dropped. But, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, in 2014, Gaetz acknowledged that he had “made bad decisions that resulted in an arrest” and added, “That is sort of something that we all live with.”

If you think, for a moment, that Johnson’s rebuke was sufficient to shame Gaetz into silence, you haven’t been paying attention for the past few months. In their fealty to Trump, many members of the House G.O.P. are entirely shameless and more than a bit bonkers. Given a second opportunity to speak, Gaetz brought up Hillary Clinton—why not?—and said he was just glad that the country now had a President who is concerned about corruption.

He wasn’t the only Republican to speak in favor of his amendment, of course. Another was Louie Gohmert, the Texan who once issued a dire warning about “terror babies” and who, on Wednesday night, as the hearing started, read out the name of an official who has been identified, in some reports, as the intelligence whistle-blower. In weighing in on Gaetz’s amendment, Gohmert followed his example and brought up Clinton. He also offered a novel theory that she was somehow responsible for the Democrats’ impeachment of Trump. “What we continue to see is projection,” Gohmert said. “Someone on their side engages in illicit conduct and that is what they accuse President Trump of doing.”

Within the confines of a supposedly serious congressional hearing, there is no wholly effective way to counter the sort of slime and gibberish that Gaetz and Gohmert were promoting. In any case, it wasn’t directed at Americans who are undecided about the merits of impeaching Trump, if any such people exist. Its only purpose was to fire up the Trump faithful, go viral on right-wing Web sites, and, perhaps, even get picked up on Fox News. In other words, it was part of politics as a tribal ritual rather than politics as rational discourse, and, therefore, it was largely immune to rational counter-argument.

Some of the Democrats on the committee tried their best, anyway, to remind people why Joe Biden’s name was the one included in the first article of impeachment. In doing so, these Democrats focussed on the actual acts at the center of the impeachment investigation—acts that most of the Republicans on the panel had assiduously avoided or deliberately downplayed.

Jackson Lee pointed out that Trump had put aid to Ukraine on hold despite the fact that the State Department and other U.S. agencies had stated that the country was already in compliance with anti-corruption directives. Hakeem Jeffries, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, read out a list of the names of witnesses, Trump appointees all, who confirmed that the President had pressured a foreign government to target a U.S. citizen: Biden. Zoe Lofgren, who represents a district in Silicon Valley, said that, although the behavior of Hunter Biden and of Trump’s sons and daughters were things that voters could consider in a general election, “here we are talking about the abuse of Presidential authority.”

That final statement was a bit incomplete. In referring to “we,” Lofgren should have made clear that she wasn’t including the Republicans on the committee. If there was one thing they were determined not to talk about, it was Trump abusing his power or doing anything wrong.

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