Trump’s Impeachment Defense in Washington and in Battle Creek

If there was a moment, during Donald Trump’s rally on Wednesday night, in Battle Creek, Michigan, when he seemed apologetic, it was not at becoming, in the course of his speech, the third President in American history to be impeached. Whatever private humiliation he may feel, he stuck, in public, to the line that the vote was “an eternal mark of shame,” not for him but for the Democrats. Instead, he seemed to worry that he would be judged for the quality of the supporting entertainment. Usually, at his rallies, there comes a point at which local Republicans—senators, representatives—trot up onstage, to bask in his praise and display their loyalty. It’s a fixture of these events, which his supporters expect, and in Battle Creek he interrupted his introduction of a local union official to tell the crowd what it would be missing. “Hate to tell you, but all of your congressmen, you know where they are right now,” he said. “Your congressmen, all of your congresspeople, men, wonderful people, they’re at a place called Congress right now.” He continued, “They’re doing an unbelievable job of supporting your President and supporting you. So they had a choice. ‘Sir, should we leave and be there?’ ”—that is, skip the impeachment debate and come to the rally. “I said, ‘Don’t leave! Stay right where you are.’ That’s why we got that vote. That’s some vote.”

Everything to Trump is a ritual of loyalty, real or imagined. The idea that his conversation with the Republican representatives took place as he described it—that they would scurry to ask if they should skip a historic vote for the rally in Battle Creek—seems ludicrous. But at this point with the Republican Party, who knows? Trump was right: it was some vote, without a single Republican “yea” for either article of impeachment. The no votes included the six Republicans in the Michigan delegation, who are indeed, as Trump suggested, all men. The seven Michigan Democrats all voted to impeach; five of them are women, and they represent a range of Democratic responses to the problem of impeachment, from Rashida Tlaib, whose call, well before the Ukraine scandal broke, to “impeach the motherfucker,” was angrily quoted by more than one Republican in the debate on Wednesday (they came up with various elisions for the obscenity; Doug Collins, of Georgia, went with “M-F-er”), to Elissa Slotkin, who is a moderate former C.I.A. officer and had openly wavered before the vote. (“There are some decisions in life that have to be made based on what you know in your bones is right. And this is one of those times,” Slotkin wrote, in the Detroit Free Press.) Her seat, in a district that Trump carried in 2016 with a margin of nearly seven per cent, may now be at risk. The delegation also includes Debbie Dingell, whom Trump derided at another point in the evening as “a real beauty” whose late husband, the congressman John Dingell, might, he suggested, be in Hell. That sort of abuse is another element of the rallies that Trump’s supporters seem to expect.

Justin Amash, also of Michigan, an Independent who was once a Republican, voted to impeach, too. In all, only two Democrats, one of whom is about to quit the Party, voted against the first article of impeachment, charging abuse of power, and three voted against the second, charging obstruction of Congress. Tulsi Gabbard, of Hawaii, voted present, thereby abstaining; Gabbard, who is running for President, appears to be on an odd path.

In Battle Creek, Trump veered between diffidence and rage, from saying “It doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached” to “The radical left in Congress is consumed with hatred and envy and rage—you see what’s going on” and “They shouldn’t even be allowed to have an impeachment! Because it’s based on dishonesty.” Of James Comey, the F.B.I. director he removed—an act that has been spoken of as a possible act of obstruction of justice—Trump said, “Did I do a great job when I fired his ass?”

Actually, the Republican representatives generally sounded, at the impeachment debate, as if they might as well have been at a Trump rally. The impeachment was “rigged,” a “ruse,” a “total joke,” a “charade,” a “coup,” and a “hit job,” executed by the Democrats in service of “socialists,” the “deep state,” “liberal élites,” their “media overlords,” or their own “lust for power.” A couple of them connected impeachment, somehow, to what Chip Roy, of Texas, called “the genocide of the unborn in the false name of choice.” Mike Rogers, of Alabama, who spoke “in complete and total support of President Trump,” extolled him for, among other things, “the space force.” “They simply don’t like him,” Paul Mitchell, of Michigan, said. The Republican narrative is that the Democrats always wanted to impeach Trump, and now felt that they had to, because they’re afraid that he will win reëlection next year. To achieve that goal, they ran roughshod over what the Republicans called “minority rights,” meaning the right of Republicans to shape the process in Congress. Michael Waltz, of Florida, said that he had seen fairer proceedings in Afghanistan. Ralph Abraham, of Louisiana, told his colleagues to mark his words: “This sinister attempt to remove this lawful President will not go unnoticed.” Barry Loudermilk, of Georgia, said that “Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus.” One lesson of the day was seeing what a very fervid crew the Republican House caucus has become.

Meanwhile, the least accurate thing that Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York and the chair of the Judiciary Committee, said about the Republicans was that they were simply attacking “the process” while not offering “one single word of substantive defense of the President’s conduct.” There were many such words on the Republican side, with expressions of dismay that anyone could find anything wrong with Trump’s call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, of Ukraine, or with what witnesses portrayed as a campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation into Vice-President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was paid to sit on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Jim Jordan, of Ohio—for once wearing a jacket—argued that “the facts” were all on Trump’s side: “No quid pro quo. . . no pressure, no pushing!” Jordan said that the Democrats just resented Trump’s achievements. Some argued that there was no “conditionality” in Trump’s placement of a hold on aid to Ukraine; others, among them Steve King, of Iowa, claimed that Trump was right to push for an investigation of his opponent’s family. “Hunter Biden doesn’t get a pass because his dad was Vice-President!” Bradley Byrne, of Alabama, said. One way or the other, they were all in.

The Democrats kept returning to facts that Alan Lowenthal, of California, said were “as simple as they are tragic.” Trump tried to use military aid to buy dirt about an opponent from a foreign government. And he had categorically refused to answer subpoenas and directed witnesses not to testify. This was, several Democrats noted, part of a pattern of lawlessness. Val Demings, of Florida, one of the more impressive voices on the Democratic side, referred to him as a “habitual offender.” (She was the chief of the Orlando Police Department before coming to Congress.) Madeleine Dean, of Pennsylvania, said that, in impeaching Trump, “We are declaring that we will not tolerate foreign interference in our Presidential elections, Americans alone will determine the outcome, and we will not permit a President to order the complete defiance of a coequal branch of government.” But she added a note, as others did, pointing out the element of tragedy in these proceedings. “Regardless of the outcome of this impeachment,” she said, “the President’s tenure will end, and this body, and our grandchildren, will be left with what we did here today.”

Democrats may well want to put aside the question of the outcome because, barring some seismic-shock revelation, it is not in doubt. At least twenty Republican senators would need to switch sides for there to be a conviction and removal in the Senate; it’s possible that none will. The defeat of impeachment may have been inevitable, but not the scale of it. During the hours of debate, there was a growing, gnawing feeling that the Democrats had not done everything they could, either to get what votes might be gettable or to give swing voters the assurance that the process—which does matter to many people outside of Washington—was handled as fairly and properly as it ought to have been. They left too many openings for Republican complaints, whether about the lack of a “minority day” for hearings or about the decision of Adam Schiff, of California, to include in the Intelligence Committee’s report the names of Representative Devin Nunes, also of California, and a journalist, who both appeared in the call records of a supporting character in the Ukraine scandal. Democrats tended to focus on the hypocrisy of that complaint, given the President’s lack of coöperation with documents and witnesses, or to say that the President would have his chance in the Senate. But that response only serves to undercut the meaning and the weight of impeachment, making it seem like a preliminary charge, or a surmise, not a sombre conclusion following a meticulous, dogged, and open-minded investigation. It makes the Senate trial, with its probable acquittal, seem all the more meaningful. Most of all, the Democrats made the fateful decision not to wait to pursue their case that the Trump Administration must answer their subpoenas in the courts, even though they have been winning there. It might have taken a few months, but the current state of play suggests that it might have been worth it. Schiff, like a great number of other representatives, quoted Alexander Hamilton, correctly, on the threat of demagogic charlatans like Trump. But the question now is whether, in the words of “Hamilton,” he and his colleagues threw away their shot.

The realization that they may have done so, despite all the evidence in their favor, was reflected in Nancy Pelosi’s announcement on Wednesday night, after the vote, that she might not send the articles of impeachment over to the Senate right away—that she wanted to see first if the process there would be “fair.” There is a Democratic contingent pressing for withholding the articles for some indefinite period of time; Representative Earl Bumenauer, of Oregon, has been advocating for the idea, and Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, wrote a widely noted Op-Ed on the subject. The rationales are various. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, has said that he has been coördinating with the White House. Perhaps he can be pressured into letting the Democrats have a say in calling witnesses? (Senator Chuck Schumer has proposed a streamlined list.) Or maybe something to strengthen the Democrats’ case will turn up? Blumenauer told the Washington Post that he saw an opportunity for “rounding out the record and spending the time to do this right.” A way to accomplish those goals might have been to not rush so quickly to a vote. On Thursday morning, McConnell said that the Senate was being asked to “redo the House Democrats’ homework for them,” and that they might be “too afraid” to send over their “shoddy” articles. As cheap as those digs at the Democrats may be, the House, having taken its vote, inevitably, constitutionally, loses a great deal of control.

The idea of withholding articles has the feel of a scramble to close the barn door after the articles have run out. And it threatens to damage Democrats with voters who, whether or not they think that Trump acted correctly, may be sympathetic to what are sure to be his howls that he is, after all, being denied his day in the court-approximation that the Senate provides. Those voters do exist, along with many who likely agree with the argument, made by Republican after Republican, that the electoral process, rather than impeachment, is the proper mechanism for addressing whatever Trump did, even if the charged acts involve an attempt to cheat in an election. Pelosi and others defined impeachment as a moral question separate from electoral calculations, which it is. But that makes the process even more of a trust—something that should be done right, if it’s going to be done. Elections, in a democracy, have moral meaning, too.

Trump was not in Michigan by accident, on Wednesday night. It was one of three states, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where a narrow win gave him the Presidency in 2016. (Although the data is still limited, polls suggest that impeachment is less popular in key swing states than in the country as a whole.) He told the crowd that impeachment is a “political suicide march for the Democrat Party.” He may be wildly wrong about that; a plurality of Americans do support impeachment. Still, doubts about how the process might have been handled differently may mean that Democratic unity has more of a chance of breaking down at the next stage, when the case moves to the Senate, than Republican unity does. Madeleine Dean was far from the only one who mentioned grandchildren or children, and how the history books will record the moment. But it’s hard to guess, at this point, what those books will say. It always is.

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