Home / General / Sure my client is technically “guilty,” but there’s a larger principle at stake

Sure my client is technically “guilty,” but there’s a larger principle at stake


I’m going to give Jim Gergaghty some creative chutzpah points for this one. After a long but highly incomplete list of Trump’s “flaws” Gergaghty argues that  “the American people knew what they were getting when it came to Trump and they voted for him anyway . . . And now here we are, three years later, with the consequences of that decision.”

Yeah but were “we” actually voting to give this “flawed” candidate the go-ahead to commit a certain number of high crimes and misdemeanors without consequence? It turns out that the answer is yes:

This is a country that backed away from removing Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and that avoided the first successful impeachment of a sitting president because of Richard Nixon’s resignation. A Senate vote to remove Trump would effectively declare that Trump’s phone call to the Ukrainian president, and other efforts to hold up congressionally appropriated aid to Ukraine, was the worst decision of any president in American history, and the only one that warranted this ultimate punishment.

Citing Richard Nixon’s resignation as evidence for the desirability of not impeaching a president is a curious use of historical precedent — for you kids out there, Nixon only resigned because he was going to be removed by the Senate if he didn’t — but whatever.

This is the “yeah it was bad, but it wasn’t bad enough to warrant removal” defense, which is where all outside of the cult defenses of Trump’s bribery and extortion of Ukraine were going to end up eventually (Inside the cult, where beliefs are not required to be tethered to reality in even the most tenuous way, the defenses remain that Trump didn’t do it, and also too that it was great that he did it, and thank you Lord Jesus for giving us President Trump).

Geraghty’s more original contribution to the discourse is the idea that removing a president who deserves to be removed via the impeachment process is still a bad idea, because it will turn future American voters irresponsible slackers:

Removing President Trump from office would say to the American people, “Don’t worry if you make a choice that turns out bad. We will save you from the consequences of your actions.” If you want the American people to exercise better judgment in future elections, you need to make them live with the consequences of their bad decisions. The lesson of a successful impeachment of Trump would be that Americans should vote for whoever they want and not worry about electing a seriously flawed president, because if he ever got too bad, Congress would step in and take him out. The narrative is clear: The will of the people matters, until the stakes get really high, and then the grown-ups will step in, reverse decisions, and put out the fires.

Some problems:

(1) The yeah it was bad but it wasn’t that bad argument is similar to a guy getting arrested for beating his wife because a neighbor finally called the cops, who then argues that this is the first time I’ve ever hit her I swear. The jurisprudentially correct answers to that defense are: it doesn’t matter if that’s true, because what you did was really bad, and by the way it’s not true.

Illegally withholding hundreds of millions of dollars of appropriated military aid to a country because you want its government to help you get re-elected by smearing one of your opponents with a fake corruption investigation is really bad, all by itself. Beyond that, the idea that the Ukraine shakedown is the only thing Trump has done that warrants impeachment and removal is laughable. We know about the Ukraine shakedown only because one very courageous person exposed it, while dozens of other people did what people almost always do in these situations, which is nothing.

Treating the Ukraine shakedown as a momentary lapse of judgment on Trump’s part is like treating that head in Jeffrey Dahmer’s refrigerator as a momentary lapse of judgment. It’s what you might call evidence of a pattern, as well as being, you know, a head in a refrigerator. Maybe the cops should search the rest of the apartment.

(2) Leaving aside that the Ukraine shakedown was both an egregious abuse of presidential power, and no doubt the tip of the iceberg in that regard, it was also an attempt to corruptly influence the very election that Geraghty argues is the sole legitimate process for addressing Trump’s corruption! So we’re supposed to have an election to decide if Trump deserves to stay in office despite his rampant abuse of the powers of his office, even though the core of his rampant abuse of the powers of his office is that he’s abusing them in order to retain the powers of his office by rigging the election that’s supposed to punish him for abusing those powers. That’s some catch, that catch-22.

(3) The whole “impeachment overrides the election” argument is coming from the same people who love to talk about how this is a republic, not a democracy. You would think that impeachment is some exotic process that the Democrats imported from France, as opposed to being the mechanism set forth in the Constitution to deal with, above all, the very kind of demagogic corruption of the presidency that Trump represents.

It’s an argument that doesn’t make any more sense than arguing that we shouldn’t have another presidential election in 2020, because “the people” were actually voting to install Trump in office for life in 2016, because “we” knew that he would never leave voluntarily when we voted him into office. (Of course that is, historically speaking, the actual fascist theory of elections: once you elect the fascist leader, you don’t get any more elections, because you were voting not to have any more when you voted for the fascist in the first place, so it’s totally fair to not have another election when you think about it. I fully expect Victor Davis Hanson et. al. to excrete something along these lines sometime in the next six months or so).

(5) Speaking of which, the argument that people knew Trump was a crook when they voted for him is belied both by the craven Both Sides coverage his lifetime of flagrant corruption was given in the context of the endless discussion of Hillary Clinton’s email security practices, and by the pathetic attempts to declare, for quite a long time after his election, that the alchemy of the office itself had magically transformed Trump into something other than than the career criminal he remains to this day. (Remember “today is the day Donald Trump became president?“)

Of course all this is academic in the worst sense. Absent some almost unimaginable turn of events, Trump isn’t going to be removed by the Senate, because Republican senators are more interested in trying to save their own miserable skins than in enforcing any kind of legal norms against the aspiring fascist who calls the tune to which they dance.

The point of Geraghty’s argument is not to help forestall something that isn’t going to happen, but to pre-emptively rationalize what will happen, whether that turns out to be Trump’s totally legitimate and in no way stolen via foreign interference and domestic voter suppression re-election (“The American people sure do love themselves a rough around the edges strongman. Who knew, but hey that’s democracy, da?”) or Trump’s defeat at the polls (“See, the system works after all! Now let’s look forward not backward, because attempting to apply the law to past criminal acts is extremely divisive and not very civil. It’s a time for healing, and I never supported him anyway. Just look at this column in which I said he was a crook, although perhaps in not quite so many words.”)

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