Mark Twain, no fan of the legislative branch of the federal government, famously wrote that “fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.” It’s not clear that Donald Trump has ever opened a Twain book. But the lengthy impeachment debate in the House of Representatives on Wednesday showed that he has taught Republican members of Congress to repeat his propaganda so faithfully it would be beyond even the most able little parasite. Either that or the Republicans taught themselves, which is an even more alarming thought.
The President “was denied due process. . . . That makes this process illegal and illegitimate. What a shame. What a sham.” This was the Republican Blaine Luetkemeyer, who represents Missouri’s Third Congressional District. “The process has been rigged from the start,” Debbie Lesko, a first-term Republican congresswoman from Arizona, said. “I am voting no because the President has done nothing wrong,” Roger Marshall, an obstetrician who represents a sprawling Republican district in northwest Kansas, declared. “The only party guilty of obstruction, abuse of power, or whatever focus-groups terms they’re using today is the party on the other side. . . . It’s past time to be done with this circus. . . . I will vote no and encourage this body to move on from this heartbreaking, disgraceful day.”
The contributions from Luetkeymer, Lesko, and Marshall were notable not because they were unusual or novel but because they were entirely typical. One after another, all day long, the Republicans parroted the lines that Trump has been feeding them since September, when the news broke that an anonymous whistle-blower had filed a complaint about Trump’s behavior, and the Ukraine story was blown open.
As the sorry details emerged of how Trump squeezed Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, to dig up dirt on the Biden family—or, at least, to announce that he was starting an investigation into the Bidens—some commentators, myself included, speculated that the Republicans would ultimately fall back on the argument that Trump’s actions, although reprehensible, didn’t rise to the level required for impeachment. And indeed, Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University Law School professor, did make a version of this argument earlier this month, when the House Republicans invited him to testify to the Judiciary Committee.
That defense wasn’t good enough for Trump: not nearly. From the very beginning, he has insisted that his July 25th call with Zelensky was “perfect”; that he had merely been pressing the Ukrainian President to tackle domestic corruption in Ukraine, even though he never used that word; and that the entire impeachment inquiry was a Democratic “witch hunt.” But Trump didn’t merely promulgate this fake narrative himself. He demanded that Republicans in Congress repeat it, too, and Wednesday’s hearing showed how completely he succeeded in bending the House G.O.P. caucus to his will.
By the eve of the hearing, it was clear that not a single Republican would vote for the two articles of impeachment. It still seemed conceivable, at least, that one or two of them would allow that Trump’s behavior had raised some serious concerns. No. Congressman Will Hurd, the sole black Republican in the House, who recently announced his plans to retire, perhaps came closest when he said that the impeachment inquiry had unearthed “bungling foreign-policy decisions.” In truth, however, even that statement was a woeful cop-out.
The rest of the Republicans acted as if they were participating in a show trial—one with a predetermined not-guilty verdict. James Comer, of Kentucky, described the impeachment process as “a baseless attempt” to override the votes of sixty-three million Americans. Denver Riggleman, a Virginia congressman whose district includes Monticello, said that Jefferson and Madison would hate to see Congress trying to reverse the result of an election. Greg Murphy, from North Carolina, declared the proceeding to be “a mockery of American justice.” Clay Higgins, a hard-right pro-Trumper from Louisiana, called impeachment “a betrayal” and said it was “brought upon us by the same socialists who threaten unborn life in the womb.”
Trump, who the White House press office claimed might “catch some of the proceedings”—even as he tweeted about it (in all caps)—will have appreciated Higgins’s rant. But the prize for the most ludicrous speech on his behalf perhaps went to Congressman Barry Loudermilk, of Georgia, who reached into the New Testament for inspiration. “When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers,” Loudermilk declared. “During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this President in this process.”
After Loudermilk finished, Jerry Nadler, the chair of the Judiciary Committee, which drew up the articles of impeachment, calmly pointed out that the committee afforded Trump the chance to personally testify, as well as to have a counsel present who could question other witnesses. The President turned down these offers. Adam Schiff, the head of the Intelligence Committee, quoted Hamilton, one of the originators of the impeachment clause, and said he “predicted the rise of Donald Trump with staggering prescience.” John Lewis, the seventeen-term Democratic congressman from Georgia, invoked generations to come and said, “We have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”
These were memorable moments, but not as memorable as the abject submission to Trump and Trumpery that the elected Republicans displayed throughout. When historians look back on this day, that is surely what they will find most notable, and tragic.