Polman column: The Trump trial is Democracy’s ultimate stress test
In a column on the eve of the 2016 election, I warned that if Donald Trump were to inexplicably occupy the White House, he would wreak havoc on American values, and his “authoritarian sensibility” would precipitate “a systematic breakdown of our democratic institutions.” I was merely stating the obvious. Any two-bit seer could foresee how his destructive reign would play out.
Now it’s playing out.
The 53 Republicans who run the chamber are busily abetting Trump’s authoritarian assault on democracy and the rule of law by systematically sabotaging any semblance of a fair impeachment trial. On Tuesday, in a series of votes, they blocked all attempts to subpoena witnesses and new evidence. And Wednesday, in Davos, Trump openly boasted about his coverup: “We have all the material. They don’t have the material.”
Trump has predictably stressed our constitutional system to its breaking point. Mitch McConnell and his lockstep legions seem determined to break it.
They’re doing so in defiance of American majority sentiment. According to a Washington Post-ABC poll, 71 percent want to hear witnesses at trial. Other recent mainstream polls have seen similar results, including a new Quinnipiac poll, where 66 percent say they want key ex-aide John Bolton to testify.
In the Senate chamber, they appear totally unperturbed that Trump’s lawyers are offering zero evidence to refute the Articles of Impeachment – which prove that Trump shook down a foreign power to get domestic campaign dirt for his re-election bid, then covered up his abuses. They apparently don’t care that Trump’s core anti-impeachment argument is a crock that would shock the Founding Fathers.
Basically, Trump’s legal eagles claim that the two impeachment articles are “ridiculous” because they don’t specify that Trump committed a crime. One of those lawyers, TV talking head Alan Dershowitz, said last weekend that Trump should not have been impeached because the articles merely describe “non-criminal actions.” He said on TV that “the (House) vote was to impeach on abuse of power, which is not within the constitutional criteria for impeachment.”
But here’s the obvious rebuttal: “(Impeachment) certainly doesn’t have to be a crime if you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and poses great danger to our liberty. You don’t need a technical crime.”
Thank you, Alan Dershowitz! Because that’s what he said on TV back in 1998, when he deemed Bill Clinton’s extramarital sex to be sufficient grounds for impeachment.
The Founders never specified that impeachment and removal required a crime – because at the time the Constitution was being drafted, there was, as yet, no federal criminal code. Instead, the Founders anticipated that Congress – awarded the sole power of impeachment – would take its cues from Alexander Hamilton, who spoke broadly about “the misconduct of public men… the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
Remember, last month, when Republicans were lauding law professor Jonathan Turley, who’d testified at the House hearings that he thought Democrats were moving too fast on impeachment? Well now Turley says that Trump’s lawyers are wrong to claim that impeachment requires a crime. That claim “is at odds with history and the purpose of the Constitution… I do not believe that the criminal code is the effective limit or scope of possible impeachable offenses.”
The gist of Trump’s defense argument – the argument that Senate Republicans are destructively indulging – is that he can do whatever he wants, and that whatever he wants is sanctioned by divine right simply because he wants it. Who is he, King George III? That’s the monarchist mindset that the American Revolution’s soldiers fought and died to overthrow.
So now we’ve arrived at the end game. McConnell and his colleagues appear bent on ratifying Trump’s power abuses, thereby destroying the checks and balances that are crucial to our constitutional order. The only hope is that Democrats – with the winds of public opinion at their backs – can hold Trump and the Senate Republicans accountable at the ballot box.
I warned in my 2016 pre-election column that a Trumpist future “is down the dark path at the fork in the road. If we take it, we own it.” We took it, we own it, and the election 10 months hence is our last best chance to reverse it.
Dick Polman, a veteran national political columnist based in Philadelphia and a Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania, writes at DickPolman.net. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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