Letters from an American: December 18, 2019

11 mins read
United States House of Representatives or Office of the Speaker of the House [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Just after 8:00 tonight, Donald J. Trump became the third president in American history to be impeached. The others were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Nixon resigned between the vote of the House Committee on the Judiciary approving the articles and the vote of the House as a whole. This makes Donald Trump the only Republican ever to be impeached, a singular status he will not celebrate.

The vote in the House of Representatives was 230-197 on the first charge—abuse of power—and 229-198 on the second, obstruction of Congress. Republicans were solidly opposed to both articles, while two Democrats voted against the first article and three against the second. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) voted “Present” on each count.

There were only 432 House official members to vote today because two Republicans—Chris Collins (R-NY) and Duncan Hunter (R-CA) have been forced out of office after being convicted of felonies. Collins and Hunter were the first sitting congresspeople to endorse Trump for president. One Democrat was also missing; Katie Hill (D-CA) resigned after nude photos of her were published by the right wing blog RedState, apparently leaked by her estranged husband. George Papadoupoulos, the Trump advisor who tripped the Russia investigation by boasting in summer 2016 that the Russians had damning documents about Hillary Clinton, and who pled guilty to lying to the FBI, announced he would be running for Hill’s seat even before she resigned.

It was a long day of debate in the House, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi treated it somberly, dressed in black and silencing the few members of her caucus inclined to cheer at the final votes when Republicans booed. What we saw today was more of what we saw in the impeachment hearings: Democrats invoked the Constitution and democracy and their oaths of office; Republicans railed against the process, denied well-established facts, and did not defend the president so much as attack the Democrats and try to whip up their base, all the while accusing the Democrats of being partisan. Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin tweeted: “The gap in character and intellect between the two parties is stunning.”

In one of the most quoted comments of the day, Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-GA) compared Trump to Jesus, saying that “When Jesus was falsely accused of treason, Pontius Pilate gave Jesus the opportunity to face his accusers. During that sham trial, Pontius Pilate afforded more rights to Jesus than the Democrats have afforded this president in this process.” Leaving aside the fact that Trump has refused to participate in the impeachment process, Loudermilk’s comparison of Trump to Jesus offers a glimpse of how the GOP has devolved from a political party to apparent worship of Trump.

Loudermilk’s quotation emphasizes Jesus as an individual man persecuted by an empire, the exact same theme Ronald Reagan used to rally voters in 1980, although Reagan identified taxation, rather than execution, as the means of death. Reagan insisted that growing government bureaucracy was crushing individuals by siphoning tax dollars from hardworking white men to benefit lazy people of color and grasping feminists. He vowed to curb the size of the government. The theme of the individual fighting an empire was attractive; it was at the heart of Star Wars in 1977, when Luke Skywalker destroyed the Empire with the help of a ragtag band and the mysterious Force that marked him as special, despite his lack of education or money.

Since then, Republicans have justified their tax cuts and shrinking of government, as well as their emphasis on religion, as support for such mythic individualism against “communism,” both real—in the USSR– and imagined, at the hands of Democrats who vote for programs that cost tax dollars. The idea that the GOP protects individual men and their families by protecting religion and destroying the government is now deeply imbedded in the party, and Trump is delivering on both counts. Loudermilk’s comparison suggests that Republicans have come to see Trump not just as an instrument of the individual against the state, as other Republican politicians have been, but as the embodiment of the persecuted individual come to save them… just as they see Jesus.

Now Speaker Pelosi will name House impeachment managers to present the case against Trump at a Senate trial. But after tonight’s vote, she signaled that she is considering following the course legal scholars have suggested in the last few days. After Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced that the trial would be strictly for show– Trump would never be convicted under his watch—and then declined to allow the four witnesses the Democrats wanted, observers began to suggest that the House should simply refuse to send the articles to the Senate for a trial.

It appears Pelosi is considering that option. She holds a strong hand in this, since 71% of Americans believe the Senate should hear from the witnesses. The Senate trial cannot begin until the House names impeachment managers, and Pelosi said tonight she will not name managers until McConnell commits to fair procedures for the trial. The only reason Pelosi has to rush is to force Senators to vote before registration deadlines for the primaries, so that Republicans will face pro-Trump primary challengers unless they vote to acquit, but if they do, they will have to face angry voters in the general election. This is a problem for the GOP. There are 23 GOP seats in play in 2020, while only 12 Democratic seats.

The case for waiting, though, is perhaps stronger: there are a number of legal cases in the works that could lead to more information, and every day brings more negative news stories about Trump. He is clearly becoming unhinged, and will do himself no favors as he twists under this cloud. My guess is that Pelosi will use impeachment as a cudgel more than as a conclusion as she waits for the story to develop.

Although the White House claimed that Trump was working today, and would only watch today’s debate sporadically, in fact he spent the day tweeting and retweeting more than 50 times, often in capital letters, blaming the “radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats, AND I DID NOTHING WRONG!… Say a PRAYER!” “SUCH ATROCIOUS LIES BY THE RADICAL LEFT, DO NOTHING DEMOCRATS. THIS IS AN ASSAULT ON AMERICA, AND AN ASSAULT ON THE REPUBLICAN PARTY!!!!” While the House was voting, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were holding a “Merry Christmas Rally” in Battle Creek, Michigan. Pence warmed up the crowd with economic news before Trump took the stage to speak.

At 2 hours, 1 minute, his speech was one minute shorter than his longest ever, possibly to distract his audience and the media—and maybe himself—from events in Washington. CNN reporter Daniel Dale, who covers Trump rallies, said it was one of his most bitter and rambling speeches ever. Notably, Trump’s anger splashed over into an attack on Michigan’s beloved recently deceased congressman John Dingell, whose wife, Representative Debbie Dingell, voted for impeachment. Trump made fun of Debbie Dingell’s call to him after her husband’s death, and then suggested John Dingell was in hell. He said this in Michigan, where Dingell is loved. Aside from anything else, this riff suggests he is so isolated in his own anger that he is no longer reading crowds effectively.

After the rally, Trump continued to rile his base, emphasizing the theme of his persecution by the government, in the form of Democrats who had just voted to impeach him. With a dark image of himself, he tweeted a warning: “IN REALITY THEY’RE NOT AFTER ME. THEY’RE AFTER YOU. I’M JUST IN THE WAY.”

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Notes:

House debate: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/12/18/gops-closing-impeachment-argument-denying-basic-facts/

Loudermilk: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/trump-impeachment-10-best-lines-house-debate-so-far-n1104341

Trump endorsement: https://fortune.com/2016/02/24/donald-trump-gets-first-congressional-endorsements/

Papadopoulos: https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/30/politics/paul-manafort-russia-investigation-surrender/index.html

https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/29/politics/george-papadopoulos-congress-california-25/index.html

Rubin:

Pelosi and Senate: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/12/18/trump-impeachment-wednesday-house-vote-086512

Trump schedule: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/watch-live-trump-holds-michigan-rally-on-day-of-house-impeachment-vote

Daniel Dale on rally:

Originally published in Notes from an American.
Re-published with permission.


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Heather Cox Richardson is a political historian who uses facts and history to make observations about contemporary American politics. She is the author, most recently, of To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party.

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