Watching the Republican-led U.S. Senate cave to our lawless president, Donald Trump, and assure him acquittal in his impeachment trial, was worse than watching a slow-moving train wreck. It was like watching a slow-moving suicide.
The suicide of the rule of law — a sine qua non of our American experiment.
After weeks of fact-finding by the House impeachment inquiry, and after days of opening arguments and Senators’ questioning in the Senate trial — all focused on Trump’s extortionate “favor” put to a foreign power (Ukraine): the quid pro quo of dirt on a re-election rival for badly-needed military aid — the question became: Would the Senate defy Trump and vote to call for witnesses and documents — both of which Trump debarred in the House inquiry — in order to conduct a proper trial?
Additionally, Trump’s former national security advisor John Bolton was waving his arms wildly, declaring his readiness to testify about Trump’s “pressure campaign” on Ukraine — a first-hand witness who could satisfy the Republicans’ dismissal of the Democrats’ case as all based on hearsay. (Bolton’s forthcoming book is titled “The Room Where It Happened.”) That Bolton refused to testify earlier in the House, even threatening to sue, the Democrats could let pass, if he testified in the Senate.
But no, the Republicans could not allow it. With the exception of two profiles in courage — Maine’s Susan Collins and Utah’s Mitt Romney — the Senate voted against ensuring a proper trial, falling in party line: 51 to 49. “World’s greatest deliberative body”? Not.
This is far more than lamentation about partisan loss; this is foreboding. Foreboding about institutional collapse, for one. With the Senate caving to our lawless president, how can the Senate cite Trump’s forthcoming lawlessness (and it will come), when it just surrendered, without much of a defense, its principal check — the impeachment option? What happens now to Senate oversight, or to its investigative function, or even to its legitimacy as a branch co-equal to the executive?
But what really is foreboding is this: Our lawless president, once “acquitted” (the scare-quotes indicate faux-acquittal), can and will operate without any guardrails at all — legal, institutional, moral. We are now at the mercy of Trump’s gut, his whims, his spite and his furies. We truly are in uncharted waters, without map or compass.