MIchael J. Stern, Opinion columnist
Published 4:00 a.m. ET Dec. 1, 2019
Impeachment is the atomic bomb of rebukes, a judgment that ‘You are not fit to serve.’ And it will distinguish Democrats from Republicans in history.
Last month I swam laps at a public health club in my underwear. I forgot my bathing suit and was damned if I was going to spend an hour walking home and back to get it. As I approached the pool, the horrified stares from two older women in the whirlpool made my humiliation feel as though I’d accidentally taken a double dose of my daily “skin on fire” niacin. But as a litigator, I’ve learned to watch my case circle the drain and not flinch. And so I shot the women a look that said “You perverts, haven’t you ever seen a man in a Fruit of the Loom bathing suit?”
With each lap, I expected a pool skimmer to hit me on the head before security dragged me out of the pool. But it never happened. And so instead of making a beeline to the locker room when I was done swimming, I was emboldened. I smiled at the same ladies as I joined them in the whirlpool. By this time, their shock had subsided and their expectations recalibrated. They didn’t raise an eyebrow as they shared a hot bath with a stranger in his underwear.
As I walked home it occurred to me: That’s how President Donald Trump gets away with it.
Counterattacks and fake indignation
Democrats resist, but Trump has desensitized his political base to his corruption by serving them more corruption. Something can only remain shocking for so long. Eventually the “unprecedented” becomes routine.
But it’s more than that. Legitimate allegations against the president are met with staged indignation and counterattacks that are, according to Melania Trump, 10 times worse than the allegation to which they respond.
To undermine the FBI’s Russia investigation, Trump ordered a probe to “investigate the investigators.” In response to a whistleblower complaint disclosing Trump’s efforts to bribe Ukraine into manufacturing dirt on 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden, Trump has all but placed a bounty on the head of the civil servant who revealed the president’s scheme. And Trump’s attacks on the late Sen. John McCain lasted beyond the grave. Seven months after McCain’s death, Trump falsely claimed McCain had peddled “fake” news to the media and was “last in his class” at his military academy.
Whether it is intuitive self-preservation or narcissistic calculation, it works. Roughly 40% of the American public accepts Trump’s explanation for the clown car of horrors he has wrought on American politics since he loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly … I mean had his servants pack his limousine and moved to the White House.
It is one thing for Trump supporters to acknowledge his improprieties and offer continued support by balancing them against polices that align with their beliefs. It’s quite another to be wide-eyed perplexed in the face of democracy’s criminal destruction.
The atomic bomb of formal rebukes
Fiona Hill, a former top presidential adviser on national security, described Trump’s misinformation campaign as a “fictional narrative.” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway has called it “alternative facts.” Whatever euphemism applies best, Trump has perfected the art of the lie in a way that aims his supporters’ outrage at the witnesses and evidence that establish his misdeeds rather than their author.
Former law and order Republicans now routinely smear law enforcement efforts and witnesses. American intelligence agencies have been branded public enemies not to be believed. The president, and complicit Republican henchmen Reps. Devin Nunes of California and Jim Jordan of Ohio, have trashed war hero Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Fiona Hill, former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and virtually every other witness who has performed their civic duty by testifying to Congress in the face of personal threats.
The insidiousness of Trump’s forward inching by desensitizing us to a train off the rails must be stopped. That’s where impeachment comes in. For too long we have relied on pundit babble and impotent congressional subpoenas as a response to pieces of the sky falling.
Impeachment is the atomic bomb of formal rebukes. It is a concrete line in the sand — a historic borderline that says “You are not fit to serve.”
Though Trump told Fox and Friends recently that he does not expect House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to go through with an impeachment vote, impeachment by the House is a virtual certainty given the overwhelming evidence produced during two weeks of public hearings.
Impeachment as deterrence
Then the impeachment trial will move to the Senate where the writing is on the wall. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will dutifully steer Republicans to a quick acquittal despite overwhelming evidence that Trump leveraged his position as president for personal gain.
But the Senate’s refusal to remove Trump from office will not mean that impeachment has been a failure. If we stand a hope of reclaiming a democracy in which we can place our faith, it will be through the trail of institutional bread crumbs that mark the path home from the back alley we’ve been residing in for the past three years.
Reams of evidence that would have otherwise remained buried are now available to the public, which can assess whether presidential bribery and its GOP cover-up matter. If those who supported Trump in 2016 continue to do so, it won’t be for lack of information that will undoubtedly result in his congressional indictment. And when time puts the tragedy of Trump’s presidency into perspective, impeachment will be the distinguishing mark that separates Democrats from Republicans.
Tools of impeachment intimidation: Trump wields a weaponized Twitter feed and die-hard fans who get the ‘code’
Beyond branding Trump a failed president, for Democrats impeachment is a strategic necessity. Nothing breeds voter apathy quicker than the thought that your leaders are doing nothing in the face of a disaster that demands they do something. The 2020 platform must be built around: “We’ve done all we can. If you’re unhappy with what Trump and the Republican Senate have done, vote us back into power.”
Finally, however slim, impeachment brings a hope for deterrence. Last month was not the first time I forgot my bathing suit and swam in my underwear. Perhaps if security had hit me on the head with a skimmer and dragged me out of the pool the first time, I’d make sure I packed my bathing suit before heading to the gym.
Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelJStern1
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