Over the past ten days, a dozen current and former government officials have testified before the House impeachment inquiry. There is only one conclusion to be drawn from their hours of testimony: the president of the United States has repeatedly committed flagrantly impeachable offenses.
Donald Trump used the power of the presidency to extort a foreign government. He conditioned a White House visit for Ukraine’s new president — and then later nearly $400 million dollars in military assistance — on a public announcement of an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden, a key political rival.
As Gordon Sondland, US Ambassador to the European Union, testified on Wednesday, this was common knowledge within the Trump administration. “Everyone,” said Sondland, “was in the loop.”
Every witness offered clear and unambiguous evidence of this quid pro quo. To deny it happened is, quite simply, to deny reality.
And yet congressional Republicans appear intent on doing just that.
For all their sound and fury, GOP members offered the American people nothing that looked even remotely like a compelling defense of Trump’s actions during the House impeachment inquiry. When they weren’t floating fantastical and evidence-free conspiracy theories about the Bidens, misplaced servers, and Ukrainian intervention in the 2016 election, they were spitting out one non sequitur argument after another.
They harped on the fact that Kyiv never actually investigated Biden — willfully ignoring the president’s all-out campaign to win just such an investigation. Trump pulled numerous administration figures and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani into the shakedown campaign, and pressured the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, himself.
They said the president was worried about corruption in Ukraine — disregarding the fact that he never once mentioned corruption in his calls with Zelensky and never once sought information from his own national security officials about Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts.
They seized on the fact that none of the witnesses ever heard the president use the words “bribery” or “extortion” or specifically say he was conditioning military aid on a Biden investigation — as if criminals regularly articulate their crimes and their precise motivations for committing them.
They said Ukraine eventually got their military assistance — while remaining completely incurious about the fact that Trump delayed that aid for three months and only released it after the whistleblower complaint emerged. No Republican seriously questioned the fact that Trump made an investigation of Biden a condition for a White House visit by Zelensky — which in of itself is a clear abuse of presidential power.
They misrepresented testimony and smeared witnesses. They railed against the whistleblower for offering second-hand evidence, oblivious to the individuals seated 20 feet in front of them who offered first-hand testimony. They hectored those who offered inconvenient evidence of the president’s guilt. They focused their questioning on individual trees while ignoring the vast and lush forest of presidential misconduct.
After nearly three years of Republicans defending Trump’s corruption, his shredding of democratic norms, and his abuses of presidential power, none of us should be surprised.
But make no mistake, this latest cover-up is the nadir of America’s anti-democratic descent. It’s not just that Trump sought to use his office for personal gain. It’s that he tried to enlist a foreign government in influencing an American election — just as he did with Russia in 2016.
When high crimes and misdemeanors as severe and profound as these can be summarily dismissed by members of the president’s own party; when the president can be shielded from accountability and, in effect, operate above the law; when he can openly seek to subvert elections without consequence, but rather with cheerleading, that’s not democracy. It’s authoritarian rule.
To some, this might sound like alarmism or hysteria. It’s not.
The GOP’s acquiescence to Trump’s crimes should be a hair-on-fire moment for the American people — a direct assault on the idea of the rule of law and a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
What is even more terrifying is that Trump is probably a 50/50 bet to be re-elected. And if he wins, it would quite likely come — once again — with a victory in the Electoral College but a defeat in the popular vote.
If you’ve got a president twice-elected with a minority of votes, operating with virtual impunity, and using his office to pressure foreign governments to tarnish his political rivals, it’s not a sign of a healthy democracy. Rather, it’s a clear indication that America’s 243-year experiment in democratic governance is teetering on the brink. If Americans aren’t terrified of where all this is heading, they damn well should be.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.