Sunday, January 27, 2019

Not to Mention

Ronald Coleman as seen through the eyes of a tipsy Norma Talmadge in Kiki (1926), via Matinee Moustache.

Shorter Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, "A Case Against Impeachment: Three (provisional) reasons not to put the president on trial":
Hi, I've called for siccing the 25th Amendment on our president, but that was before I became world-weary and cynical a few months ago. Now I'd like to adduce three (provisional) reasons for rejecting Yoni Appelbaum's call for Congress to begin a formal impeachment inquiry: because (1) Trump hasn't succeeded in doing a large number of the harmful things he has promised to do; (2) we knew he was a snake before we took him in; and (3)
That was probably really the subeditor's fault for writing the stupid cross-hed. There were three reasons (paragraphs 1-4) for thinking the president might not last through the end of 2020, one of which was that Appelbaum and others are interested in impeachment, and "several" reasons for not impeaching (the rest of the column, but only two are numbered, so that it's unclear whether the other stuff is additional reasons or instantiations of the first two), and the subeditor got confused.

It's funny to bring up Trump's incompetence as a reason for not getting rid of him:

many of [Appelbaum's] examples feature Trump failing to actually trample anything. He “did his best” to enact a Muslim travel ban (the actual ban was limited and upheld by the Supreme Court), he has “called for” the firing of political enemies (with little discernible result), he has made “efforts” to impede the Mueller investigation (which continues apace), and so on down the list of outrages that exist primarily on his Twitter feed.
Honestly, attempted obstruction of justice is still a crime. Nixon didn't succeed in stopping the investigation either.

Trump failed to ban all Muslims from entering the country, but he has had a huge effect on the numbers of Muslim refugees and students, not to mention students from countries not part of the ban including India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Mexico, Iran, UK, and Turkey, as well as China, Taiwan, and Nepal (for nondegree students), causing some real panic in higher education, which is financially very dependent on these payers of full fares; and tourists from all over (just two developed countries saw a net drop in foreign travel in 2017,  Turkey and the US). The number of visas granted to foreign visitors was down 13% as of about a year ago, and the decline was accelerating, partly because of the Trump administration's deliberate efforts to slow the process down, costing the country an estimated $4.6 billion and 40,000 jobs. It's true that Trump's effort to violate the Constitution on this count failed, but it's done a great deal of damage all the same.

You could say the same of a problem that's much more significant over the long term, Trump's attempts to reverse Clean Air and Clean Water rules and roll back the fight against global warming (the Monsignor doesn't mention these, of course). They have certainly been failing, on a massive scale, whether it's to gut the regulatory regime or to preserve the coal industry, largely because the initiatives are being found illegal in state courts, but they have succeeded in doing a great deal of harm: the administration's own National Climate Assessment last November showed how the global warming damage is getting worse because of inaction, and the New York Times reporting in December gave vivid illustrations of the direct association between Trump policy and the worst effects.

And so on. Not to mention (the Monsignor doesn't, naturally) those areas where Trump seems to have broken the law very successfully indeed, which would seem to be more the sort of thing impeachment is about, when it's for his own personal profit, as Appelbaum notes:
The oath of office is a president’s promise to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any faction within it. Trump displays no evidence that he understands these obligations. To the contrary, he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them. This has encouraged a wide array of actors, domestic and foreign, to seek to influence his decisions by funneling cash to properties such as Mar-a-Lago (the “Winter White House,” as Trump has branded it) and his hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue. Courts are now considering whether some of those payments violate the Constitution.
And not to mention (the Monsignor doesn't see why anybody should want to) Trump's fairly open demand that his own government serve him rather than serving the Constitution:
More troubling still, Trump has demanded that public officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the public. On his first full day in office, he ordered his press secretary to lie about the size of his inaugural crowd. He never forgave his first attorney general for failing to shut down investigations into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and ultimately forced his resignation. “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty,” Trump told his first FBI director, and then fired him when he refused to pledge it.
It's also pretty comical of Ross to suggest Trump shouldn't be impeached because voters knew exactly what he was when they elected him, with the reference to
a poem that Trump often quoted in 2016: You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in. Meaning, in this case, that little about his rhetorical excess, his penchant for lies and insults or the seaminess of his courtiers was hidden from voters on the campaign trail in 2016, in an election that by the Constitution’s standards Trump legitimately won.
(No doubt it was legitimate, but it wasn't the voters who did it, "by the Constitution's standards"; they firmly rejected him.)

This is precisely the situation for which impeachment was designed, though, both against "demagogues" who "hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country" and those who are merely "unworthy", as Bob Bauer explains at Lawfare;
James Madison also worried about the elevation of “unworthy” leaders who would have “very great powers” and against whom the polity should be “effectually guarded.” He was eventually consoled that the “infirmities” of popular election would be “corrected by the particular mode of conducting it” and that the country would be protected from “ambitious or designing characters,” such as the demagogue. While the trust was a “high one, and in some degree perhaps a dangerous one,” Madison reasoned, the Constitution provided the remedy of impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors “at all times,” in addition to the requirement of an election every four years.
Not to mention (as the Monsignor, inevitably, doesn't) that it's not just his bad manners ("rhetoric" and seamy associates) that should have been at issue: the wider public didn't know much about his criminal associates, the Italian and Russian mob connections, or his history of racial discrimination against tenants in his buildings and workers in his enterprises, or the fraudulent businesses like Trump University (for which his victims were given a judgment of $25 million during the campaign) and self-dealing slush funds like the Trump Foundation, all of which were reported but so downplayed on most TV news and even the fancy press that Douthat can affect not to know about them, or maybe really doesn't.

Pious appeals to the democratically determined will of the people aren't very convincing, anyway, when the people have changed their minds, as in the case of the British departure from the EU, where they aren't being given a second chance in spite of the complete cockup the Conservative government has made of it, and likewise with Trump, who has been disapproved by a majority without a break since three months after the inauguration.

Anyway, all this is somewhat beside the point of Appelbaum's important essay: which isn't at all to say that we should get rid of Trump, or that we shouldn't, but that we need to start the decision process.

An impeachment doesn't get rid of the president, in the first place, as every fifth grader is supposed to know. That can only be done by a trial in the Senate. An impeachment is a solemn ritual of discovery, if you like, when the House of Representatives works to determine what the facts of the case are:
a mechanism for considering whether a president is subverting the rule of law or pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the general welfare—in short, whether his continued tenure in office poses a threat to the republic.... Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.
Mueller can't even begin to do this, because it's not in his terms of reference: he can only consider what relates directly to the 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian effort to subvert it; and he can only do it in legal terms, where the problem is in fact political.

Douthat totally fails to understand that it's the whole of the president's conduct that needs to be examined, not just a single narrow case narrowed for a trial:
in the absence of Mueller-stamped evidence, what we have to prove that peril is Trump’s actual foreign policy, which is erratic but frequently quite unfriendly to Moscow — with the administration’s effort to subvert the Russian-aligned Maduro regime in Venezuela just this week’s example.
Which makes it entirely reasonable to wait to see whether Mueller vindicates the various uncorroborated scoops about a conspiracy hatched in Prague or the Ecuadorean Embassy, rather than trying to impeach Trump for, say, his private griping about NATO.
For one thing, when Trump is seen as "unfriendly" to Russia, you have to ask whether he's acting on behalf of somebody else who's paying better (e.g. Saudi Arabia, in the case of Trump's Iran policy), or whether his agreement with Russia doesn't stretch beyond the Ukraine and sanctions issues in the first place (Trump has done a number of things Putin may not like, but he really hasn't ever given up on the effort to reduce sanctions on Russia or not implement them at all, as we saw from this week's  news on how Mnuchin misled Congress into lifting sanctions from Oleg Deripaska, while it's been three months since the administration missed its deadline for implementing sanctions on the Russian government over the Skripal murder attempt and no signs that they have any plans to get to it).

In any case, while the Russia story is very central, it's not the only story that needs to be examined. Douthat may not wish to mention Trump's habit of demanding personal loyalty to the extent of lying on the part of his staff, or his attempts to funnel cash to his businesses through the perks of office, or the cases for collusion with other foreign actors from Israel and China to Brazil and Argentina, but they are important and they don't belong to the matters Mueller is looking at, and somebody has to mention them.

And whether or not it comes to a Senate trial is a secondary matter, though experience suggests impeachment is the way to get the senators' attention:
The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what’s already known and by bringing new evidence to light. If Trump’s support among Republican voters erodes, his support in the Senate may do the same. One lesson of Richard Nixon’s impeachment is that when legislators conclude a presidency is doomed, they can switch allegiances in the blink of an eye.
Douthat is burying all this in his desire to limit the question to whether one meeting took place in Prague or London, because Douthat is, as usual, acting as an agent of evil. As he was when he was backing the 25th Amendment solution, aware that it would never happen but the talk would provide an exciting distraction—what he dislikes about impeachment is the possibility that it might take place. He never really changes.

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