It was near the end of a long hot summer of American scandal. The nation was already exhausted from two years of shocking, nonstop headlines and the president’s angry insistence that he was not a crook — and that instead elites and the press were determined to take down a popularly elected president. But then came a “smoking gun” — proof that the sitting POTUS had clearly abused the power of the office as part of an effort to assure his reelection.
In a parallel universe to ours, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives — which had been aggressively investigating White House misconduct for months — said impeachment was a given. America’s leading news organizations — many of whom had already demanded that the president resign — redoubled their efforts. And a delegation of leading Republicans came down from Capitol Hill to the White House, urging a president of their own party to step down for the good of the country.
That bizzaro-world United States of America actually existed during the first week of August 1974, when Richard Nixon complied with the will of a Supreme Court — after Democratic and Republican appointees had agreed unanimously that a president is not above the law — and released the so-called smoking gun Oval Office tape of the 37th president ordering that the CIA improperly stop the FBI from investigating his 1972 campaign’s crimes.
It’s hard to imagine such a planet here at the end of America’s Watergate-amnesia summer of 2019, with the dramatic new evidence that President Trump, while withholding some $250 million in military aid that has been approved by Congress, repeatedly pressured the newly elected president of Ukraine to release (even if manufactured) dirt on Democratic front-runner Joe Biden and his son’s business dealings. It’s a scandal that could be called Nixonian ... except it’s arguably worse.
Are we shocked that a political establishment either too fearful or too corrupted to tackle the actual smoking barrels of AR-15 assault rifles that left a trail of bodies this summer from El Paso to Gilroy has gone all deer-in-the-headlights when confronted with a metaphoric smoking gun at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stubbornly clung to her political calculation, that impeachment would backfire against her Democrats — that it’s naive to press for the rule of law when Republicans abandoned that for partisan hardball years ago. Pelosi even told NPR she wants to pass a law that a sitting president could be indicted — which would take the constitutional pressure of making such a hard choice as impeachment away from the House and its speaker.
MSNBC asked 15 moderate Democrats who’ve so far resisted calling for an impeachment inquiry to come on TV and talk about it, in light of the Ukraine disclosures. All 15 said “no.” Meanwhile, not a single U.S. newspaper or major news organization has written an editorial calling for Trump to resign during these months that he has plowed through the guardrails of democratic traditions and taken the American Experiment to the edge of the abyss — not even any of the 115 newspapers that in 1998 demanded that Bill Clinton resign for lying about oral sex.
“The integrity of our democracy isn’t threatened when a president breaks the law,” Democratic first-term Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive icon, tweeted Sunday. “It‘s threatened when we do nothing about it. The GOP’s silence & refusal to act shouldn’t be a surprise. Ours is.” In the Washington Post, veteran journalist Dan Balz — a levelheaded voice of The Establishment — added this:
America’s democratic system, the world’s oldest, is said to be resilient, with institutions strong enough to defend against runaway actors and with checks and balances designed to prevent too much power from building up in any one place or with any one person. Earlier in Trump’s presidency, that appeared to be the case. Right now, however, that is in question.
He’s exactly right. You know the famous opening to NBC’s Law and Order, that there are two sides to the criminal justice system, the police, and the prosecutors. In a very different sense, there are two sides to the question of presidential power and whether the United States can avoid sliding into dictatorship. There is the matter of the chief executive’s conduct — the place where the dirty tricks of Trump and his appointed henchman Rudy Giuliani in dealing with Ukraine are earsplitting echoes of Nixon’s behavior 47 years ago. And then there’s the system of checks and balances necessary to respond. In Nixon’s time, it worked well. Today, it’s on life support and looks to be brain-dead. Those with the ability to act need to channel their inner 1974 in the next few days — or I’m afraid it will be too late for the patient.
Let’s be clear. The antagonist in this story — the bad guy, the wrongdoer — is Donald John Trump. The president is the one who caused this constitutional crisis with his narcissistic zeal for power and adulation that has been unrestrained either by 243 years of democratic norms or by the actual letter of the law. Since 99.9 percent of you reading this haven’t been living in a cave since June 2015, I won’t go long here into his litany of high crimes and misdemeanors that include welcoming Russian interference in the 2016 election, illegally paying off a porn star mistress to sway that fall’s campaign, and multiple efforts to obstruct investigations into his conduct.
That’s a problem, but here’s the bigger one: The failure of our much-ballyhooed system of check and balances to deal with those impeachable offenses has emboldened Team Trump to see itself as unstoppable and to grab for autocratic powers that were once unthinkable. If you watched last week’s ragged start to what may or may not be a House impeachment inquiry of Trump prompted by the Mueller probe, you saw contempt from Team Trump and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, both in the literal sense of refusing to answer questions (on top of two Trump aides who were barred from testifying at all) and in the moral sense of treating Congress as if the president heads a gang of untouchable mobsters who own the streets of Washington.
Behind the scenes, Trump’s lawyers were fighting to keep the president’s income tax returns secret with a stunning expansion of approaching-dictatorial presidential powers — arguing that not only can the president not be indicted but he can’t even be investigated. Likewise, both the Justice Department and, reportedly, the Trump White House, have gone to extraordinary steps — successfully so far — to keep the whistle-blower who’s driving the Ukraine scandal from telling what he or she knows to Congress. The big picture is obvious. Trump is daring America to stop his authoritarianism.
Can we? Pelosi has become a focal point, and understandably so. Last fall, I and many others applauded the return to power of one of the most skillful politicians of our lifetimes, and argued that opposition to Pelosi was rooted in sexism and ageism. That said, her political skills seem rooted in the year she was first elected to Congress — 1987, when then-Speaker Tip O’Neill was still welcome at the Reagan White House for stiff drinks and political compromises. Her experience hasn’t prepared her for the authoritarian danger of Trumpism, nor does her power, status or multimillionaire wealth provoke her to see the current moment the way that so many others see it — as an existential threat.
Our biggest enemy is apathy — to look at the gross level of malfeasance we already know about in the Trump-Ukraine affair and then remember the inertia or ineptness or maybe rank fear that’s prevented action on all of the president’s other serious misdeeds, and throw out hands up in the air in disgust and hopeless despair. But just because our so-called leaders seem to have given up doesn’t mean that we have to.
Just this past week, we saw hundreds of thousands of American teenagers leave their classrooms, sometimes without permission, and take to the streets and demand that the government act with some sense of real urgency on climate change. And with almost no media coverage, thousands of everyday Americans marched on Washington to demand Trump’s removal. A popular sign at Friday’s climate strike was, “There’s no Planet B.” Well, there’s also no Plan B for U.S. democracy if the president is not restrained in the current crisis.