November 13, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Our Ignorance Is Trump’s Defense
The less you understand, the better for him.
You may have noticed something about the Republican defense of the president. It doesn’t approach evidence of wrongdoing honestly. It doesn’t engage the allegations against Donald Trump. It dismisses them as political, partisan, biased or whatever. Another thing you may have noticed is that defense is often offense, but again, not in any way that’s grounded in material evidence coming to light. Trump’s go-to method is attacking the credibility and legitimacy of his accusers, putting them on their heels.
The whistleblower is immune to such tactics, and that drives Trump and his allies to distraction. They can slander and defame witnesses who have come forward in the investigation into impeachable offenses by the president. They can do this, because they know who these witnesses are. There is an identity—and a face—to which they can attach their smears. But they can’t with the whistleblower. You can’t malign anonymity. So what can they do? Well, wail and pule over “presidential harassment.”
The less you understand, the better for Trump.
I bring these up because trust is, or should be, today’s guiding light. Today is the first in a series of hearings in the House of Representatives. I said yesterday that the big picture to bear in mind is that Trump’s interests are not America’s. (They are Russia’s.) But I can’t let this pivotal week go on without including public trust in that argument.
The Democrats are trying to prove the president violated the public trust. His conduct therefore rises to the constitutional standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” it is said. Yet Republicans can’t be trusted either. They are proving they can’t be with their maliciously dishonest defense. Congressional Republicans can’t be impeached (that only applies to the executive and judicial branches). They can only be voted out. That, however, depends on the public fully understanding what they are doing and why.
The less you understand, the better for Trump.
Ignorance, therefore, is his defense.
Now, most people most of the time have something better to do than pay attention to politics. I don’t blame normal people for not understanding, or misunderstanding, what impeachment is or whether a president must have committed a crime in order to be impeached. But Washington is full of people who do know how this works and yet are not speaking truthfully to the American people. They are exploiting ignorance. That’s something people should know about. If they did, they must not be as trusting.
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I can’t think of a better way to illustrate than by pointing to Lindsey Graham’s behavior. The South Carolina senator knows how legal proceedings work. He served in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps before entering the Congress. As a former military prosecutor, he knows there is an established order. First, an inquiry. Then charges against the accused based on evidence. Then trial and possibly verdict.
That’s not all he knows. Graham knows the difference between a criminal proceeding and a constitutional one. He knows that crimes must be proven beyond a shadow of doubt. He knows that’s a high and just moral standard. He also knows that a constitutional proceeding, though it mirrors a criminal one, does not and should not require such a standard. He knows this because he led the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998, and because he represented the House in his trial in the Senate.
And yet Graham, who understands the established order, has been pretending the Democrats are upending that order. He has said the president has the right to face his accusers (the whistleblower). True, but that happens at trial and we are not there yet. He has said the Democrats are mounting a “coup.” Again, impeachment proceedings are constitutional. He has said impeachment is a “death penalty.” Does that even merit a response? In short, he’s been flinging any and all accusations he can imagine at the Democrats when he knows they are following House rules and the US Constitution.
Everyone has a stake in trusting the president.
When you know the truth but make statements contravening the truth, you are knowingly lying, and when elected officials knowingly lie, the public has a right to know, because the public is invested in their ability to act in the public’s interest. Now, you could say Lindsey Graham’s only responsibility to voters in South Carolina. Fine. I’ll leave it to them to decide what to do with a man who lies to them. The president, however, serves everyone. The public is all Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, whether they even voted. Everyone has a stake in trusting the president.
The great irony, or paradox, is that the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton on the charge that he lied to the American people. He violated the public trust. Now, with a Republican president, the Republican cannot, or will not, defend him honestly. They lie. They redirect. They gaslight. And they calumniate. Anything to avoid mounting evidence that Donald Trump extorted Ukraine’s government for personal gain. In other words, the Republicans are lying. The public really should know about that.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.