WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — October 7, 2019 — “Shoot them in the legs.” “Spy.” “Treason.” “Enemy.” “Chosen One.” “Civil War.” The litany of bizarre and inflammatory statements from President Donald Trump gets worse and worse. Whether they are intentional tactics, or emotional outbursts, they are profoundly troubling.
Are they impeachable? Are they high crimes and misdemeanors? Here’s where lawyers reach the limit of their usefulness. If you go by historic precedent, they probably don’t fit the definitions of impeachable offense. Standing alone they are not obstructions of justice, or disloyal acts, or conspiracies.
But, at least for me, they represent a far more dangerous threat to the nation than the contents of the Ukrainian phone call.
Trump is an existential threat to the political culture that has sustained our democracy since its founding. When the chief magistrate becomes unhinged or cuts loose from democratic norms we have a problem, unlike the Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon or Andrew Johnson impeachment crises. We can’t function as a polity without shared rules of engagement, and we can’t, apparently, stop the corrosive and crazy language.
The backstories to these outbursts are chilling. Recent New York Times reporting on Trump’s behavior on immigration issues are, if true, evidence of mental and temperamental deficiencies that put us all in danger. They raise questions of action under the 25th Amendment’s removal for disability provisions. Again, this is not the traditional understanding of why we remove an elected, but disabled, president.
The sole repository of hope for saving our democracy from these threats is the Republican Party, particularly members of Congress.
Democrats have little role, partially because many of them have rushed to impeachment too early and without due process, partially because their political opposition to Trump limits their credibility.
There are stirrings of Republican concern. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa is pushing back trying to protect whistleblowers. The occasional congressman criticizes one outburst or another.
There is much scuttlebutt about private concerns about Trump, but nothing in the nature of a clear and stern message that preservation of our democracy requires rejecting Trump’s outbursts.
Getting there will be difficult and complicated by the impeachment proceedings, which will properly dominate the conversation.
One historical observation: The Nixon and Clinton impeachment proceedings were largely inquiries into facts. Did Nixon know and approve of Watergate activities? Did Clinton have a physical relationship with an intern? Both denied it. Both lied. The inquiries surfaced the truth. The new facts persuaded the nation and a minority of Republican officeholders to abandon Nixon and a majority of Democrats to back Clinton.
The Trump impeachment inquiry is different. The facts are not in essential dispute. Absent a new revelation, Democrats have to go forward with legal arguments, not facts. The country has to be persuaded of a legal theory. Not easy.
Which brings us back to Republicans. A solid majority of the nation finds Trump’s outbursts and behaviors repugnant, even those who oppose impeachment. There is a politically comfortable place for Republicans in beginning to divorce themselves from the Trumpian attacks on our political culture. That alone will be invaluable, no matter what transpires in the impeachment battle.
Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.
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Original publication by Times-Union on October 6, 2019.