WASHINGTON — President Trump “endangers our national security” and presents a “uniquely dangerous” threat to the rule of law, said the brief submitted by House Democrats ahead of Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, which will begin on Tuesday.
On the same day, White House officials involved in Trump’s defense held a phone call with reporters. They said that the impeachment inquiry launched by Democrats in September was a “dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their president.” The articles of impeachment, the officials argued, were predicated on “dangerous distortions of the Constitution.”
Warnings of danger abound in Washington as the nation prepares for the first impeachment trial since the one Bill Clinton faced — and survived — 21 years ago. If the two sides agree on anything, it is that this is a perilous time, according to the rhetoric they’ve been deploying to make their case to a divided American public, as well as to the 100 U.S. senators who will decide Trump’s fate. Setting aside the legal and factual points in dispute, both sides have argued that whether Trump is acquitted, or convicted and removed from office, the implications for the future of the republic are grave.
“Unless he is removed from office, he will continue to endanger our national security,” the Democrats warned in their Saturday brief.
Shortly after holding the media conference call, the White House released a brief of its own. The seven-page response was considerably shorter than the Democrats’ brief (a longer White House brief arrived on Monday), but no less dire. It began by calling the impeachment inquiry into Trump “a dangerous attack on the right of the American people to freely choose their President.”
That was the first sentence. The second went on to call that same inquiry “brazen and unlawful.”
Trump stands accused of attempting to exert pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations that could redound to the benefit of the American president’s reelection prospects. A second article of impeachment passed by the House charges him with obstructing the investigation of the Ukraine pressure campaign.
But the particulars of the two articles of impeachment are dwarfed by what both sides see as the cosmic import of the matter before them. Instead of engaging in sophisticated legal maneuvers, both sides have been launching grenades deep from entrenched positions.
The Democrats’ brief, for its part, calls Trump “the Framers’ worst nightmare” and warns that he could do “irreparable damage” to American government if allowed to remain in office.
The last time a president was impeached, Washington was hardly a paragon of comity. Republicans had long loathed the Clintons, while the Clintons saw themselves as targets of a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” as Hillary Clinton famously called it. Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky outraged many Americans. That he lied about that affair under oath — hence perjuring himself and providing the basis for impeachment — only compounded the outrage.
Even so, as high as the stakes were then, they seem lower than they do today. Contrast the apocalyptic language of the weekend’s competing briefs with that of Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, one of the Republican impeachment managers who argued the case before the Senate in 1999. Sensenbrenner argued that Clinton acted in a way that was “contrary to his constitutional public responsibility to ensure the laws be faithfully executed” by lying about the Lewinsky affair.
“Mr. Clinton has recognized that this relationship was wrong,” Sensenbrenner went on to say. “I give him credit for that.” Later in his opening remarks, Sensenbrenner said that letting Clinton get away with “serial lying under oath” would “cause a cancer to be present in our society for generations.” But he was not calling Clinton a cancer, and there was no reference to the “danger” of Clinton remaining in office. He argued instead that, on the merits of the case, Clinton should be removed.
And it was, on the whole, an argument instead of a diatribe.
In her defense of the president, Cheryl Mills, then a member of the White House counsel’s office, admitted that Clinton’s behavior was “not attractive, or admirable.” Still, she said, that behavior was not criminal. “I am not worried,” Mills said later, “because we have had imperfect leaders in the past and will have imperfect leaders in the future.” Human weakness alone, the argument went, was not an impeachable offense. It was an argument, like one that had been made by Sensenbrenner, that allowed for a measure of nuance.
It’s almost inconceivable that either side would make such concessions, mild as they are, in 2020. That’s because Trump has been such an immensely polarizing president, disliked by a historically high number of Americans but still enjoying the support of a committed, steadfast base of supporters. Those supporters see Trump as unfairly maligned, while the president’s detractors say he is unfit for office, with the Ukraine affair only the latest proof of that point.
In effect, that leaves both sides playing to their respective audiences. Support for impeaching Trump has neither risen nor fallen for months. That means both Democrats and Republicans have remained in their trenches. That goes both for legislators on Capitol Hill and the voters who sent them there. And the leaders have essentially told their respective sides not to budge.
The one House Republican who entertained the idea of impeaching Trump, Justin Amash of Michigan, was basically forced out of the party and now calls himself an independent. One of three House Democrats who didn’t line up with their party on the issue, Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, became a Republican instead of trying to explain himself before fellow Democrats.
There are no gray areas, no middle ground, no patch of ground on which to agree.
Trump himself stokes this notion. “This Impeachment Hoax is an outrage!” he recently said on Twitter. Earlier, in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, he called the impeachment inquiry an “unconstitutional abuse” that was “unequaled in nearly two and a half centuries of American legislative history.”
Clinton showed at least some contrition about the Lewinsky affair, while Trump has shown none at all, maintaining that the July 25 phone call with Zelensky that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry was “perfect.” And by adopting intensely apocalyptic rhetoric about impeachment, Trump has in effect forced both sides to do the same.
That much was evident from the weekend’s dueling briefs, and it will certainly be true when the trial opens on Tuesday morning.
“The outcome of these proceedings will determine whether generations to come will enjoy a safe and secure democracy,” the Democrats warned. The White House in turn called the impeachment inquiry “a fundamentally flawed and illegitimate process that denied the President every basic right.” And so both sides remained hunkered down in their trenches, awaiting the epic battle upon which the fate of the republic is said to hang.
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