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Hi there, here’s what you need to know for the week of February 12, 2021, in 8 minutes.

THIS WEEK INSIDE THE BIG TENT:


① The instinct not to call witnesses in Trump's impeachment trial stems from the same mindset as the instinct not to impeach him at all

② Both of the main objections to calling witnesses are very weak

③ Even if those objections were stronger, fact finding both in this case and in other facets of Trump accountability are restorative for democracy

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① AT WITNESSES END

Donald Trump gave Congress sufficient grounds to impeach him several times over, but in a small-r republican sense, the one currently before the Senate is the one Congress should’ve felt most obligated to take up. More than the impeachment we got in 2019 after the Ukraine shakedown, more than the ones we probably should’ve had over the Russia affair, obstruction of justice, emoluments clause violations, vulgar bribery, that time he placed Halloween candy on top of a child’s Minion costume, and so on. The charge in the pending matter is incitement of insurrection, but what we witnessed this week was a reckoning with Trump’s marrow-deep civic degeneracy. His four year long effort to exploit the American people and the power of the presidency to upend U.S. democracy from within, for his personal gain. This is the impeachment we deserved, but did not get, after Charlottesville, and the Michigan capitol siege, the plot to kidnap and murder Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-MI), and his multifaceted efforts before and after November 3, to steal the 2020 election.

If you’ve watched any substantial part of the trial, and come away shaken, it’s worth remembering and dwelling on the fact that on January 6, after the insurrection had passed, the instinctual response of most Democratic Party leaders and old guard members was “let’s not do this.” (If you’ve watched any part of the trial and not come away shaken, it’s worth letting me know which CBD products you buy.)

I don’t know how the second Trump impeachment trial will end. But I know that the political world is bracing for the Senate to acquit Trump once again, after once again hearing from zero witnesses. I also know that this time around, Democrats have it in their power to call witnesses who could shed light on all facets of the insurrection, but that the same set of party members that initially wanted to bypass impeachment altogether has now decided that, with the trial’s conclusion foregone, calling witnesses would be nothing more than a waste of Senate floor time.

Let’s party here like it’s 2020 for a minute and dwell on why that instinct is wrong as a political and procedural matter, but also as a footing to protect the country from resurgent authoritarianism.

② HARD FACT TO FOLLOW

I wrote in the hours after the insurrection about the reflexive desire some Democrats felt to sweep the whole catastrophe under the rug, and the current desire to close the trial without calling witnesses stems from the same mindset. Rug addictions are hard to break.

It’s been widely reported that the big three, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and President Biden all oppose extending the trial for witnesses—or, at least, that they want this to wind down quickly—and it’s evident that prominent Democrats agree. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) insist that witnesses aren’t necessary because the case is so clear, as if they're the ones whose minds needed to be made up. Lead impeachment 1.0 manager Adam Schiff seemed to thumb the scale against calling witnesses, suggesting further fact finding might be risky. “That’s a judgment call,” he said. “They’ll have to decide: If they do so, are they prepared for the defense to call witnesses, does that help build the case or does that detract from the case?”

These objections are rooted in the presumption that extending the trial will be time consuming and (the specter that haunts elected Democrats more than anything) that it may backfire. 

The procedural objection is a red herring. Because Trump is no longer a sitting president, the trial doesn’t actually have to play out on the Senate floor, and the proceedings can be referred to committee if they require a significant investment of time. 

The political objection can’t actually be refuted, because predicting the future is hard. But from where I sit, a presentation based on publicly available evidence leaves us in the dark about important aspects of the insurrection that Republicans very much do not want coming to light:

  • What was Donald Trump really doing during the insurrection, from beginning to end?
     
  • Was he directly or indirectly to blame for the long delay before national guardsmen arrived?
     
  • Where did the insurrection fit into the broader deliberations we know Trump engaged in over how to steal the election, including his last minute decapitation of Pentagon leadership and installation of hack party loyalists in positions of power over National Guard deployment?
     
  • To what extent were members of Congress involved?
     
  • Was he directly or indirectly to blame for failed federal law enforcement prevention and response efforts?
     
  • What do Capitol and DC police officers maimed by insurrectionists think about all this?!

In a world of two-party, zero-sum politics, the fact that Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham ALSO want this trial to wrap up quickly should tell us everything we need to know. Witnesses would be bad for them, they’ve surmised, so by definition they’d be good for Democrats. But whether you think the purpose of the trial is to persuade enough Republicans, against all odds, to convict Trump, or to maximize the political damage they inflict on themselves by voting for acquittal in the face of damning evidence, the prescription's the same: you want to unearth as much damning information as possible. Are Republicans more likely or less likely to acquit Trump after uniformed police officers appear before the Senate and pin responsibility for their injuries on Donald Trump? If they intend to acquit him anyhow, under what circumstances would that vote hurt more: with or without such testimony?

③ NO HARM IN TRIALING

What if I’m wrong about the political valence of a more extensive trial? Or at least, what if it doesn’t transform the impeachment into a watershed—what if the public tires of the process, or most senators who choose Trump over “blue lives” get re-elected, and one of the insurrectionists gets a Fox News show called The Patriot Hour?

The answer is: Dems should still do it!

I spoke to Ruth Ben-Ghiat on this week’s episode of Rubicon, and she had a ton of interesting things to say about the importance of accountability as a bulwark against authoritarians in waiting. I premised our conversation on a thought experiment in which the insurrection never happened, and we had to reckon with all the other bad acts done in our name. But the lessons apply to all things. I hope you’ll listen to the whole episode (because, well, you know) but three points she made seem particularly relevant:

  1. Democrats can’t escape political “blowback” by anticipating bad-faith right-wing attacks and pre-empting them by soft-pedaling accountability, because those attacks have already taken root. “There's the fear that Trump would be a martyr. There's also the fear that Democrats would look vindictive. But right-wing media is showing people like Nancy Pelosi...as vindictive anyway. Those storylines are already set. “
     
  2. The process of exposing and penalizing bad actors like Trump has a cleansing effect by driving marginally-attached loyalists away from the inner circle. We saw some of this “elite defection” in the immediate aftermath of the insurrection, and bringing new facts to light might generate more.
     
  3. Most abstractly, but to me most importantly, the act of fact-finding is democratically restorative. It’s a way of demonstrating to free people that their elected leaders are answerable, and that their actions aren’t rooted solely in pursuit of power or hidden purposes. As Ruth said, “transparency is about showing respect. And for the people you are governing, it's a form of humility.”

On a more partisan level, it’s a way for Democrats to show the voters who gave them consolidated control of government that they aren’t scared of confronting an opposition that has proven it would like to rule the country by force. 

Call witnesses; call one witness. Don’t consent to the Republican effort to make everything seem pointless; make them pay for it. 

I spoke with Abdul El-Sayed about the Biden administration’s COVID response, among other things.

I strongly recommend this Peter Beinart essay defending Matt Duss, a prospective Biden-administration State Department official and fundamentally decent dude, from the scurrilous but predictable attacks he’s faced for years—and which now threaten his appointment—for daring to criticize Israel’s human-rights record. It’s an effective counterweight to those attacks, but speaks to something much, much larger than one appointment.

Yes, quite

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