This piece was originally published in USA Today on December 18, 2019.
Republicans in Congress are avidly denying the obvious truths about President Donald Trump’s serial criminality. Though they lack the votes to stop impeachment in the House of Representatives, they are poised to acquit Trump in the Senate, where they easily can block the necessary supermajority of 67 votes required to evict a president from the White House.
The facts of the case are damning. Not only is Trump on record, in a document released by the White House itself, of engaging in extortion and bribery, but his conversation with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky was the culmination of a plot months in the making. Yet no matter the facts of the imbroglio, the Republican legislators either baldly deny them or interpret them in phantasmagorical ways.
“Ukraine blatantly interfered in our election,” says Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, repeating a baseless Russian propaganda line. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas, meanwhile, says flatly that the Democrats “are willing to block witnesses from coming in here and testifying before Congress.”
Never mind that it is Trump himself who has taken the extra-constitutional step of ordering all executive branch officials not to comply with congressional subpoenas, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who now wants to exclude witnessesfrom the Senate trial.
Extinguishing the concept of truth
Acquittal in the Senate, when it comes, will be an example not of democratic deliberation, of the careful sifting and weighing of facts to arrive at some approximation of truth, but the exercise of raw political power.
This is not how a developed democracy should function. Rather, it has something important in common with tin-pot tyrannies in which the leader manipulates the factions and interest groups beneath him to build unbridled power.
To be sure, the political actors backing Trump in Congress are not acting lawlessly; quite the contrary. They are playing the role allotted to them by the Constitution: representing their constituents, i.e., Trump’s base, which opinion polls show would want to stick with him even if he were to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue.
Yet there is nonetheless something deeply sinister about the Republicans’ behavior. They appear intent on extinguishing perhaps the most fundamental ingredient of a self-governing republic, namely, the concept of truth.
It would be one thing — semi-respectable — if Republicans were to maintain that Trump’s misdeeds in Ukraine, however deplorable, did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. But it is something else entirely to recycle Russian-inspired propaganda, to maintain the wholly incredible narrative that Trump was doing nothing but attempting to fight corruption in Ukraine, or to deny the obvious fact that there was a quid, a pro and a quo when Trump held up military assistance to Ukraine and conditioned its release on the performance of a “favor, though.”
These Republicans are propagating blatant lies, just like their incessantly lying leader —who blew past 15,000 “false or misleading claims” on Monday and followed up Tuesday by sending House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a six-page letter crammed with falsehoods. They are insouciantly telling us that white is black and black is white, and never mind the obvious falsity of these propositions because, in the end, no matter the truth, they have the votes to acquit.
Senate on path to reward criminality
This exercise of political power in raw fashion could prove to have profound consequences for the future of human freedom. As the possibility of reason and compromise are destroyed, a venerable constitutional democracy, once the beacon of hope around the world, is coming undone.
William Webster, the only man to head both the CIA and the FBI, someone known to be extraordinarily careful with his words, is warning of a “dire threat to the rule of law in the country I love.”
If the Senate fails to convict and remove Trump, the outcome of our struggles will hinge on an election in which one side will have been effectively granted a license to cheat, a license that can be used again and again. Criminality will be rewarded and law-abiding behavior punished. Grievous injury will have been inflicted on our democracy and with it the cause of democracy around the world.
Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, was Mao Tse-tung’s famous aphorism. In our gentler American context, we are witnessing the tragic fact that political power can grow out of a fusillade of lies.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, an adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @GabeSchoenfeld