For a nation forged in bloody revolution against an unjust monarchy, America sure loves the pomp and circumstance of ancient royalty. That was driven home for the umpteenth time on Saturday when I flipped on CNN and they were covering the news that The Artist Formerly Known as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle will no longer be called “royal highnesses" with a breathlessness that made me wonder what that whole Bunker Hill thing was all about.
But there was also something a tad regal about last week’s formal kickoff to impeachment proceedings against President Trump that — though utterly symbolic — I did find compelling, a rare moment of must-see TV on Capitol Hill. There was indeed something almost majestic about Wednesday’s slow procession of the two articles of impeachment from the House side of the Capitol to the Senate chamber — underneath iconic John Trumbull canvases of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the British surrendering (heh) at Saratoga, and stared at by the busts of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.
Some noted how fitting it was that the articles were carried by House clerk Cheryl Johnson, per the dictates of our 1787 Constitution, and yet, as a black woman, also a symbol of progress in the 233 years since it was written — delivering the charges of high crimes and misdemeanors against a president elected on a racist, misogynist campaign. The procession was just the start of two days of pomp and circumstance, including a formal reading of the charges, the summoning of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and the swearing-in of senators who are now also jurors.
On one hand, all the ceremony seemed a bit much, almost screaming out for powdered wigs or, maybe in the spirit of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a “farcical aquatic ceremony” with a “watery tart,” a sword and a stone. On the other hand, it closed the loop between 1787 and the ideals of the Framers like Alexander Hamilton and James Madison who drafted the impeachment clause, and 2020, when the worst kind of corrupt and reckless demagogue that the Founders so much feared is sitting in the White House (unless he’s out golfing).
All of which makes it a shame that in so many ways this whole beautiful exercise is already becoming a travesty of a mockery of a sham.
In fact, the pro-Trump GOP majority that runs the Senate and is so eager to acquit the president as quickly and with as little political pain as possible is using the cover of tradition and alleged decorum to craft antidemocratic procedures. They will make it difficult for the media to cover impeachment and relate it back to the American public, and shield too much behind locked doors or archaic rules — all with the goal of avoiding close scrutiny of a process rigged from Day One.
Impeachment is also crushing the First Amendment. On the eve of the impeachment proceedings, the Senate sergeant-at-arms — appointed by and directly reporting to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — imposed draconian new rules on journalists working that side of the Capitol, keeping reporters in holding pens (shades of Trump’s Nuremberg-style rallies) and greatly hampering their ability to question senators.
On Thursday, reporters found as many as 10 Capitol Police in hallways where there are usually only one or two officers, and these cops were aggressively blocking any journalists who tried to pigeonhole senators and carry out their First Amendment right to question those in authority. For example, a Miami Herald reporter trying to interview a home-state senator, Marco Rubio, had his questioning terminated by police.
The Capitol Police even passed out handy-dandy cards to senators with tips on how they can stiff-arm those pesky journalists with phrases like “You are preventing me from doing my job” — an Orwellian twist on a reality that’s the exact opposite. The episode showed that it’s a thin blue line between a free press and a police state. The restrictions were blasted as unconstitutional and un-American by journalists’ groups, the ACLU and PEN America, which rightfully called them "an unacceptable effort to block the free flow of information at a time when that information is necessary to the functioning of our democracy.″
But war on the First Amendment and the role of journalism in a democracy is increasingly the go-to move for a Republican Party aware that whipping up the masses with hated of the media can cover up its many sins. Arizona’s appointed Sen. Martha McSally gave up the game last week with a pathetic attack on CNN’s Manu Raja, responding to a fairly tame question by lashing out at him as a “liberal hack,” then using the clip to raise campaign donations and go on Fox News to boost her flagging election campaign. It was a jarring reminder of the ugly and thuggish politics just beneath the veneer of 18th-century ceremony and pseudo-civility.
Impeachment rules that keep the American people in the dark. While only the third impeachment trial in U.S. history, with two coming in the last 21 years, the trial nonetheless begins with rules that seem both confounding and outdated, with senators acting in essence as both judges and jurors and shielding key parts of the proceeding from the citizenry on whose behalf impeachment is allegedly taking place.
The key debates this week — on allowing testimony from witnesses, including those whom the Trump White House unlawfully blocked from speaking to the House — are slated to take place off camera and behind closed doors, under rules that seem to favor secrecy over transparency. What’s more, McConnell’s Senate will control the TV cameras and not C-SPAN. Other odd rules — senators can only ask questions in writing, to be read aloud by Justice Roberts — are debatable but create the potential for a stilted and disjointed proceeding that cheats those who should be a critical part of impeachment: the public.
How many senators just lied under oath? Given that congressional Republicans just a generation ago staked their claim that lying under oath is an impeachable offense, it’s bizarre that senators just publicly took an oath and signed their names to a pledge “to do impartial justice” when several have been blatant about doing the exact opposite. That includes McConnell, who’s spent weeks working with Trump’s defense team and said, literally, “I’m not impartial about this at all,” and Sen. Lindsey Graham, who said “I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”
The biggest problem, of course, is that these impartial-not-really-just-kidding Senate jurors like McConnell and Graham are going to try this week to practice what they preach by likely trying to bar any witnesses or new evidence. That would include aides with direct knowledge of what the president knew about the Ukraine matter and when he knew it, like former national security adviser John Bolton, and the shocking new evidence released by indicted suspect Lev Parnas, partner-in-alleged-crime with Trump’s personal attorney.
This week will be pivotal, but the GOP support for a rushed, sham trial in which witnesses are prevented from telling the truth, key discussions are held in locked rooms, and journalists are blocked from questioning the architects of this potential travesty are signs of two deeply troubling things, arguably connected to each other.
First, Monday’s third anniversary of the Trump presidency comes amid growing signs that the bullying of a corrupt autocrat — even one who often seems buffoonishly unfit for the White House — is wearing down the body politic. How else to explain that Republicans senators who once were willing to criticize Trump — like Rubio, McSally or Mitt Romney — seemed poised to act as lapdogs in excusing a blatant abuse of power? The weekend news that the National Archives had blurred out of a picture signs criticizing Dear Leader was alarming and seemed to have both nothing and everything to do with his looming sham trial.
Even more worrisome is that the rush to American authoritarianism is taking place thanks to a government in which the ancient rituals of impeachment can also be seen as symbolic of a stultified democracy, no longer up to the task of governing an increasingly diverse nation of 330 million people. A modernly corrupt presidency deserves a modern impeachment trial — one that’s 100 percent open to the public and accessible to the press.
It’s also all a reminder that the Founders who got it so right on impeachment also gave us the Electoral College, which created a system in which a blatantly unfit candidate could get 3 million fewer votes and still capture the presidency. And now any effort to remove him can be stymied by an equally undemocratic Senate, currently ruled by a Republican majority representing only about 40 percent of the nation.
However the Trump impeachment ends — and it may not end well — the proceedings may well deliver a cruel verdict on how the American Experiment is working or not working, some 244 years into it. If anything good comes from this, it may not be Trump’s removal but the start of a badly needed conversation about whether the way we elect a president and Congress and select a judiciary needs to be radically overhauled for the 21st century. After all, it’s one thing to be titillated by the latest plot twists of Britain’s royal family but quite another to be creating a monarchy here in the United States.