My Dream

Chief Justice John Roberts arriving at the Senate chamber on January 16, 2020

When the Chief Justice walked in, you could feel the weight of the moment. I saw members on both sides of the aisle visibly gulp. The weight of history sits on shoulders and produces sometimes results, you never know what will happen. Remarks by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer after the opening day of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump.

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The New York Democrat may be right: “You never know what will happen.” If enough Republicans (as few as three, depending on Chief Justice John Roberts’ vote in a tie) side with Democrats, witnesses will appear at the trial. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton’s potential testimony about what he termed the “drug deal” to force Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden would place further pressure on vulnerable Republican senators who are currently likely to acquit the president. The testimony of other possible witnesses could yield such an overwhelming mountain of evidence that even South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham might have difficulty remaining Trump’s most subservient lapdog. And, then, there are the documents which could further incriminate the president.

Chief Justice John Roberts administers oath to senators at the start of President Trump’s impeachment trial

This scenario — a dream, really — is, of course, hypothetical. As of now, Republicans are poised to find Trump not guilty, even though the evidence gathered by the House during its impeachment inquiry conclusively demonstrates that Trump’s offenses warrant his removal from office. This raises a troubling question about  the oath Chief Justice John Roberts administered to all the senators, which was the first order of business in the Senate trial. Every senator present raised his or her right hand and heard Roberts ask, “Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help you God?” Then, the senators walked to the front of the chamber and signed their names in the oath book.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signing the oath book

Here is the question: How did the vast majority of Republicans who have decided the president did nothing wrong — many publicly stating so — take a solemn oath to administer “impartial justice”? How did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — pictured here signing the oath book — so swear, given his earlier statement about the trial: “I’m not impartial about this at all”? If McConnell already has decreed he is not “impartial,” how can he swear to do “impartial justice”? How does Graham swear the oath after saying, “I have clearly made up my mind. I’m not trying to hide the fact that I have disdain for the accusations and the process…. I’m not trying to be a fair juror here.” How did that work for McConnell and Graham and the rest of the sycophantic Republican caucus? Did they cross their fingers on their left hands behind their backs while holding their right aloft? Too bad there is not a camera angle from the back of the chamber.

There is much that is dispiriting about Trump’s presidency. American democracy has been damaged — perhaps beyond repair — by his undermining of the Constitution and the rule of law. The American public’s sense of decency and fair play may have been corroded substantively, as well, and civil discourse may never recover from Trump’s bullying and mockery of his opponents. But, perhaps, most depressing of all is the collaboration of Republican lawmakers in the diminution of their authority and independence. 

Of course, the rise of the imperial presidency did not begin with Trump. Since the middle of the last century, power has flowed to the president, resulting in the exaltation of the executive branch and the diminution of the legislative branch. Congress has sat idly by — sometimes actively cooperated — while it has lost the last vestiges of control over war making and foreign policy. Even in the domestic arena, the penchant of recent presidents to issue executive orders has led to a loss of congressional influence. The willingness of current Republicans in Congress to look the other way when the president impounded funds for Ukraine that the legislature had authorized indicates a willingness among Republicans in the House and Senate to surrender the ultimate source of congressional power: Control of the purse.

Augustus

I am reminded of the fate of the Roman Republic when pondering the submissiveness of Republicans in Congress in the face of Trump’s depredations. I have written on this subject before, but Rome, after decades of political dysfunction, slid from a republic into an empire with the acquiescence of the Roman Senate, which willingly granted to Octavian — who became the first emperor under the name Augustus (which means the illustrious one) — control of the army and a permanent status as princeps, first citizen. The fiction of the Roman Republic continued, and the Senate remained an official body, but it had little power except to exalt the status of the senators. 

Rome provides a map of how a functioning republic slips into autocracy step by small step until one day the public realizes freedoms and liberties have been lost. Rome’s descent into tyranny was not inevitable. The Roman Senate could have resisted Octavian’s power grab, but it did not. The silence of congressional Republicans who are too frightened to challenge Trump is reminiscent of the Roman Senate’s silence.

Trump’s impeachment trial is about more than the president’s guilt or innocence. It is about whether Americans value the gift given to us by the Founders of the American Republic. It is about whether American society protects its liberties and self-rule from the assault of a would-be autocrat. Trump has said Article II of the Constitution gives him the power “to do whatever [he] want[s].” The document does not do that, but the document will be meaningless if Republicans in the Senate acquiesce in his undermining of American democracy. Like the Roman Republic, the American Republic works only as long as everyone agrees to play by the rules as outlined in the Constitution.

Sadly, Republican complicity in the destruction of the Constitution likely will continue as the Senate exonerates the president of wrongdoing. But, I am writing this on MLK Day, so allow me my dream. Maybe Senator Schumer is right. Maybe senators on both sides of the aisle “could feel the weight of the moment.” If so, congressional Republicans may cease to be silent and do what Roman senators failed to do in the first century BCE and say, enough, we will not allow you to destroy our Republic.

Posted January 21, 2020

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