The weakness of the Republicans’ defense of President Donald Trump is implied by the obvious hollowness of many of their arguments.
Here’s an example: There was never the slightest possibility that an impeachment inquiry could be conducted in secret. Yet during the public testimony of Ambassador William Taylor and Secretary George Kent last week, House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes was barely into his opening statement before he lambasted the Democrats for the Oct. 22 “closed-door” deposition of Taylor.
Nunes charged that Taylor was put through a “star-chamber audition” in a “cult-like atmosphere in the basement of the capitol.”
Sure, it sounds terrible if you put it that way. But Nunes doesn’t mention that he was actually present at the “secret” meeting, along with Trump’s most combative defenders, including Reps. Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and John Ratcliffe, all of whom vigorously exercised their rights to participate in this “closed-door audition.”
Last week’s testimony was rife with many other extraordinary defenses of Trump that do not stand up to fair-minded scrutiny.
But here’s an argument that should worry every American who is concerned about the health of our democratic institutions: Several times during the recent hearings Republicans have noted that the next election is less than a year away. Why not just let the American people decide Donald Trump’s fate?
This argument has a strong natural attraction for a democratic nation with deep faith in the wisdom of the ballot box. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put these ugly impeachment proceedings behind us and just wait to see what the people say in November 2020?
But before we kick this can so casually down the road, remember that the integrity of our elections is at the very heart of the current impeachment inquiry.
The 2016 election is relevant here. I’ve never rejected the legitimacy of Trump’s election, and I’ve acknowledged him in print as “my president.” That’s the way the Electoral College works.
And Trump’s defenders often point out that Americans knew who Trump was when they elected him. Trump never bothered to keep his attitudes toward brown people, women and Muslims secret. He boasted openly about acts that can only be described as sexual assault. Many voters were aware of Trump’s sketchy business history.
But there was a lot that we didn’t know about Trump in 2016. We didn’t know (and still don’t) what his tax returns look like. We had no idea how extensively Russians interfered in the election, nor how eagerly the Trump campaign would encourage the interference, nor the extent to which the Trump administration would go to cover it up. And even now we don’t know how much impact Russian interference actually had on the vote count.
In 2016, voters didn’t know that by 2019, Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen would be in prison, in part for hush money payments to a porn star just before the election. There’s considerable evidence that Trump knew about this cover-up. What impact might that piece of information had on the 2016 election?
We’ll never know. But we’ve learned enough about Trump since 2016 to cast considerable doubt on the 2020 election. The impeachment inquiry is all about how little Trump learned from his dabbling with foreign interference in the 2016 election. In fact, Trump has said openly that he would accept foreign assistance in his re-election. There’s considerable evidence that he has not only encouraged outside interference but has used the powers of his office to extort it.
And just as in 2016, we have no idea how much Trump has done that we still don’t know about. Can we be certain of the integrity of the next election if no lessons are learned from the last one?
Depending on the 2020 election to set things right is no more a way of “letting the people decide” than is impeachment. In 2018, the people decided to elect a House more willing to examine scrupulously the behavior of an unfit president. Especially when our elections themselves are under attack, impeachment is another important constitutional way to “let the people decide.”
John M. Crisp, an OpEd columnist for Tribune News Service, lives in Georgetown, Texas.