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The high price of zero / January 29, 2020
I have generally refrained from saying much about the impeachment proceedings underway against President Trump, because you can find scads of commentary on the topic from people who are both better informed and better writers than me. They’re everywhere: one good piece this week, by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein, makes a compelling argument in the space of the subhead, “A report about a book by John Bolton makes the president’s Republican defenders look like liars and fools. Maybe they’ll be fine with that.”

Maybe they will. Look, let’s just start by stating the obvious: there’s zero chance that Donald Trump’s GOP footstools in the Senate will remove him from office. Zero. This despite the fact John Bolton, the president’s former national security advisor, is apparently ready to provide direct, damning testimony on Trump’s efforts to corrupt our democracy by shaking down a foreign country, forcing its president to take part in a smear of Trump’s leading domestic political rival. Whatever Bolton plans to say in his testimony, the information will only strengthen what we already know.

Bolton, who served in the White House for 17 months before either being fired or quitting (take your pick), has written a book on the experience, excerpts of which were reported this weekend in The New York Times. This much-ballyhooed journalistic “bombshell” draws its force from two things: first, if the Times report is to be believed (and it has been confirmed by multiple other outfits), Bolton is prepared to provide a first-hand, I-was-in-the-room account of how Trump personally ordered the quid pro quo that threatens his presidency — a hold on $400 million in military aid to Ukraine, unless that country announced investigations into Joe and Hunter Biden. Ukraine, of course, was desperate for the assistance to fend off aggression by its neighbor, Russia. (Russia figures somehow in almost every Trump scandal.)

Second, and maybe more important, Bolton is a difficult figure for Trumpkins to dismiss. The moustached former advisor to the President is a longtime foreign policy hawk, a reliable Republican war daddy, who camped out for years on Fox News accusing Democrats of fecklessness before he joined the Trump White House. When Republicans lose the likes of John Bolton, they have reason to worry how many Republicans they might have left.

Will all this convince enough GOP Senators to break ranks, joining the 47 members of the Democratic caucus in a majority to compel Bolton’s testimony? At the time of this writing I have no idea, and there’s no real way of knowing if anyone else does, either. The question is pretty much as Jonathan Bernstein states it above: How kindly will Republican Senators take to being exposed as liars and fools?

The likely answer is, “Same as all the times before.” Seriously, Lindsey Graham — is there a bigger weakling on the America political scene? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell would just as soon throw his mother under a train than relent in his ongoing efforts to do the same to constitutional democracy. Is Maine’s Susan Collins a moderating force within an ever-more extremist Republican Party, or is she a political hack trying to hold onto her Senate seat at all costs? To ask these questions is to answer them.

Until proven otherwise, the show trial currently on stage in the Senate serves only two purposes: on the Republican side, it’s to get an obviously guilty president through an impeachment trial with the minimum possible political damage. If you’re a Democrat, the objective is the exact opposite. (It would be nice to think that a corrupt and abusive president would be removed from office, as the Founding Fathers plainly intended by adding the impeachment clause to the Constitution, but while Alexander Hamilton is the lead character in a hit Broadway musical he never had to go up against Fox News.) Republican officeholders can’t be happy that they’ve been drafted into insisting there was no “quid pro quo” in Trump’s dirty dealings with Ukraine, only to have their credibility blown to bits. Yet will any GOP member of the Senate raise a peep of protest? When America’s best hope for political courage rests on the shoulders of Mitt Romney, the safe answer is “no.”

Barring a miracle, impeachment will come and go with Trump remaining in office, and then we’ll see what voters say on the matter this November. The 2020 election looms as the alpha and omega of America’s future as a representative democracy. (If Trump is re-elected to a second term, you can forget about curbing official corruption in this country.) The fact that I and other like-minded people can believe these things, in all sincerity and in all honesty, speaks not only to the abundant evidence that supports such a radically unnerving proposition — this is truly the era of Stupid Watergate, with the difference between Nixon and Trump being that some of the sleaziest figures involved in this scandal aren’t even U.S. citizens — but also the deep alienation that exists between the country’s opposing political factions. America is a prosperous country with many valid ongoing claims to being the Greatest Country on Earth, yet it feels like the place is falling completely apart. Which begs the question: Would this sorry state of affairs exist without Donald Trump?

It’s a tough question, and my mind goes back and forth on the correct answer. On the one hand, Trump represents the culmination of cultural and social unrest that is bigger than party politics. His political base — mostly white, middle-aged and deeply skeptical of younger generations whose days will soon come — has zealously coalesced around the goal of holding back America’s steady march toward becoming a more diverse, less WASPish nation. What’s most disturbing in this is seeing a traditional conservative sensibility morph into something more dangerous, a reactionary state of mind that provides the kindling for a burn-it-down demagogue. Is Trump the cause or the symptom of the darkening of the American soul? Or can it be both ways? Would Joe McCarthy have succeeded with Rush Limbaugh and in his corner? If the answer to all of these questions is yes, then your view on whether Trump is sui generis or just more of the same probably depends on which side of the bed you woke up this morning.

I know this much: this, too — this terrible present political moment — shall pass. Sooner better than later, in my humble opinion, but that’s for the voters to decide a little more than ten months from now. In the meantime, the notion that the country might tear itself apart over the never-ending Donald Trump Alternative Reality Circus is both terrifyingly possible and completely nuts. We have a long task ahead drawing the poison out of this venomous era of American history, which can only begin once Trump is ushered out of the White House. In the meantime, when people including U.S. Senators reveal themselves to be liars and fools, in their own words and with their own actions, it’s safe to trust what you are seeing with your own, non-lying eyes.


POSTSCRIPT: Most everyone has heard by now of the episode that, in a sane dimension of time and space, would have led to the sacking of the Secretary of State. This week, Trump chief diplomat (?) Mike Pompeo went postal on Mary Louise Kelly, host of NPR’s All Things Considered, following an interview in which Kelly quite understandably asked Pompeo questions about Ukraine. After the interview, Pompeo accused Kelly of violating negotiated terms of the interview (an assertion which is almost certainly a lie) and ranted and cursed at the reporter in private. Pompeo also challenged Kelly to find Ukraine on a lined but untitled map, something that Kelly, a longtime national security correspondent, was easily able to do.

What you may not know is that there’s a distant local connection to this story. Pompeo’s blow-up became a big story, prompting news outlets to contact NPR’s leadership for comments (which across the board consisted of a resounding defense of Kelly.) One of the much-quoted NPR sources was Senior Vice President for News Nancy Barnes. She just so happens to be the wife of Sam Barnes, a county native and former News & Record editor from many decades ago. Nancy was employed for years by the Raleigh News & Observer before making the jump to radio journalism and NPR. By the way, how can anyone be sure that Pompeo is lying about his exchange with Kelly? If Trump officials’ lips are moving ....

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