WESTCHESTER COUNTY, NY — February 23, 2020 — The impeachment and trial of Donald Trump has come and gone. In an age of instantaneous news and opinion, that’s not surprising. But now’s the time to reflect and see if anyone learned anything.
The first lesson is that being a vile person, and a serial liar, are not grounds for conviction in an impeachment trial. A great deal of the intensity of feeling on the left comes from Trump’s awful and dishonest behavior, and it was and is both things. Removal from office isn’t the remedy for that, any more than niceness and honesty are shields for high crimes and misdemeanors.
The second lesson is that the law and evidence at trial was not as strong as it should have been. The charge stemming from Trump‘s treatment of Ukraine came down to whether he illegally withheld military aid approved by the Congress. That was probably but not certainly a convictable offense, But compared to Nixon‘s abuses of power using the FBI, CIA, IRS, bribery and more, it was thin soup, constitutionally. And the evidence itself was skimpy largely because Trump refused to let Congress see the proof. What would have happened if the House had enforced its subpoenas before impeaching him? He would have had to produce better evidence or contemptuously refuse to do so. Either way his transgressions would have been clearer.
The fourth lesson is that Trump thinks the verdict empowers him to continue the vile behavior, the lies, and the abuses of power. Put aside the attacks on Justice Department career employees, or the regular fabrications that we now tolerate. The pardons are a terrifying preview of what’s to come. I have no objection to sentence reductions, for the powerful and unpowerful alike. Incarceration is overused. But the choice of Rod Blagojevich, Michael Milken, Bernard Kerik and several others shows a presidential sympathy for bribery and other economic crimes that cannot be supported. In themselves, the pardons are awful. As a prelude to pardons for Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort or other Trump-related criminals, they are scary indeed.
The fifth lesson is nothing new. The American political system is the final arbiter of grand questions of law and democratic norms. For all the distortions of wealth and social media, we will determine what is acceptable and what is not. For over two centuries, that system has functioned reasonably well. It may not survive 2020.
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Original publication by Times-Union on February 23, 2020.
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Richard Brodsky is a former state Assembly member.