By the reasoning of Rep. Jim Jordan, I did absolutely nothing wrong.
You’re alive! Not a drop of blood on you! An unconsummated crime is no crime at all, or so Jordan, one of the Republican Party’s more rococo philosophers, argued Wednesday in defense of President Donald Trump. Ukraine got its military aid; Trump did not get his investigation of the Bidens. To Jordan, that’s proof of innocence.
To a normal person, that’s proof of incompetence, which doesn’t exonerate the president but should definitely reassure us. Trump’s an autocrat all right, but the silver lining is that he’s an inept one. All strongmen should be this weak.
And all of us should have the mental limberness and ethical elasticity that Jordan and his troupe possess. They’re the Cirque du Soleil of c’est la vie. I’ve never seen anything like the Republican effort to defend Trump, which charts the frontiers of creativity, explores the outer limits of audacity, mutates like the monsters in the “Alien” movies and restores my faith in American ingenuity.
My faith in Washington, too. I long feared that politics had stopped attracting the country’s top talent, but some of our finest storytellers are working in the United States Capitol. John Grisham has nothing on Jordan. Danielle Steel can’t hold a candle to Devin Nunes.
Nunes was among the first Republicans to pipe up on Day 1 of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings, held by the House Intelligence Committee, and it wasn’t just his narrative ambition that mesmerized me. It was his bold descent into his thesaurus, a sort of semantic spelunking.
The hearings, he said, marked the “pitiful finale” and “spectacular implosion” of the “Russia hoax.” They amounted to a “scorched-earth war against President Trump” that was “horrifically one-sided” and “preposterous.” This “low-rent Ukrainian sequel” had already involved a “closed-door audition process in a cultlike atmosphere in the basement of the Capitol.” Cultlike, no less! That’s a more fitting description of Republicans’ obeisance to the president and laundering of his wrongdoing, but then one hallmark of Trump and his sycophants is the projection of their own flaws onto their adversaries.
Nunes’ best bit Wednesday and then again Friday was his portrayal of Trump’s Democratic detractors as amateur pornographers intent on finding nude pictures of the president. I’m fairly confident that no one is intent on finding nude photographs of the president.
But at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if Trump himself tweeted one out. Would that be any crazier than what he did Friday, as Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, testified?
There she was, a pained, stoic State Department amalgam of Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae, and Trump used his Twitter account to call her an international wrecking ball, single-handedly responsible for the mess that is Mogadishu. (One of her posts before Ukraine was Somalia.)
This accomplished nothing in the way of silencing her but raised the prospect of witness intimidation being added to any articles of impeachment. Clearly, the Republican response to this impeachment inquiry isn’t some elegant strategy. It’s an epic snit.
Its leitmotif is hypocrisy. Nunes opened Friday’s hearing by lamenting all the important government business that was on hold because Democrats preferred to torture Trump. I somehow missed his pleas that lawmakers keep their eyes on the ball and devote themselves to practical problem-solving when the president stirred up one culture war after another just to change the topic of a given news cycle or hear a rally audience’s roar. But along comes the impeachment inquiry, and suddenly House Republicans are stymied stewards of levelheaded government.
They’re dismissing Wednesday’s and Friday’s hearings, held in public, as pure theater. But they complained about the closed-door testimony beforehand. They’re shrugging off the accounts of William Taylor, George Kent and others as hearsay. But the White House has decreed that such firsthand witnesses as Mick Mulvaney not cooperate.
One moment, Mulvaney publicly acknowledges the shakedown of Ukraine’s president, insists that it’s how foreign policy is done and tells the media to “get over it.” The next, he tells the media that they’re reprehensible fabulists for reporting exactly what he said. One moment, Republicans completely ignore Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call and claim that there’s no direct evidence of his bullying and — yes, Nancy Pelosi is right — his bribery. The next, they acknowledge the call, sigh over Trump’s behavior but say that it’s hardly impeachable.
In fairness, that’s only slightly more confusing to me than the Democrats’ perspective on the call, a definitive piece of evidence that they may be inadvertently downgrading. Usually, a process like the one that they’ve been engaged in over the last seven weeks is about finding a smoking gun. This process began with the smoking gun, and the farther the Democrats travel from it — eight witnesses this coming week? — the more they risk implying that it wasn’t enough.
But for curious behavior, Republicans have them easily beat, and their conduct during the impeachment inquiry is the culmination and apotheosis of their conduct since Trump wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination: an utter sellout of principle and a pure embrace of fiction to pacify an emotional infant and keep him from spitting up on them.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans again suggested — while maintaining straight faces — that Trump’s foremost concern was corruption in Ukraine. Steve Castor, the Republicans’ chief counsel, also gave one of the president’s most convenient (and thus favorite) conspiracy theories a fresh whirl, positing that perhaps American intelligence officials had it all wrong and Ukraine, not Russia, hacked Democratic emails in 2016 and otherwise interfered in the election.
How would this make Trump’s demand that Ukrainians smear Joe Biden in return for millions of dollars of already-authorized aid OK? It wouldn’t — but what a juicy distraction! And what a perfect gateway for Castor’s attempt to get Taylor to testify that Trump legitimately believed that Ukrainians were, in Castor’s words, “out to get him.”
Try to follow along. Not only does incompetence equal innocence, but also paranoia is exculpatory. Same goes for the relative dastardliness of a deed, which becomes innocuous if it’s not maximally obnoxious. That’s my takeaway from when Castor, referring to Rudy Giuliani’s shenanigans, asked Taylor: “This irregular channel of diplomacy, it’s not as outlandish as it could be — is that correct?” Clarence Darrow, move over. Another genius of jurisprudence demands space in the history books.
All that Wednesday’s hearing lacked was Lindsey Graham. Yes, I know, he serves in the Senate, and the hearing took place in the House. But he’s the standard-bearer for Trump-coddling contortionism, the reigning king of the kinds of contradictions that were on display.
Presaging Jordan’s approach at the hearing, Graham a week and a half ago shrugged off the impeachment inquiry by calling Trump’s policy toward Ukraine so “incoherent” that the president and his minions “seem to be incapable of forming a quid pro quo.”
He said at one point that he’d be open to any evidence that backed up such a quid pro quo, but then, more recently, he announced that he wouldn’t and couldn’t be bothered to follow the testimony, because he’d already made up his mind. As Billy Binion of Reason magazine noted, “Graham has bemoaned the Democrats’ lack of transparency, only to shield his eyes once the curtain was lifted.”
Maybe Graham will storm the hearing room yet, an effigy of Hunter Biden in tow. That would match the dignity of what we’ve seen from Republicans so far.
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