Each day this week, when the Senate impeachment trial of Donald John Trump has convened at 1 P.M., the proceedings have opened with a prayer
by the Senate chaplain, Barry Black, pitched to the tenor of the day.
On Wednesday, responding to the ill-tempered partisan exchanges that marked the trial’s contentious first afternoon and evening
Black urged senators to “remember that patriots reside on both sides of the aisle.”
On Thursday, he practically begged senators to take their role seriously, cautioning them against “fatigue or cynicism,” and insisting that
“listening is often more than hearing.”
Black warned against jeopardizing friendships of many years in the heat of the impeachment moment, and, on Friday, he returned to the theme of “civility and respect” and
implored senators to maintain their ability to “distinguish between facts and opinions without lambasting the messengers.”
I came to look forward to these homilies, but only because they seemed like pleas to a country and a Senate that no longer exist.
If anything, the chaplain was pleading with senators to do the exact opposite of what we all know they are doing.
In Trump’s exhausted, jaded capital, there is some listening, but certainly no hearing.
Civility is as often as not a dirty word, a synonym for moral compromise and not a prescription for practical politics.
In days of watching the trial, I have observed only a handful of instances of Republicans and Democrats interacting with each other in any way.
The Senate of the United States in 2020 is not a place where meaningful talking across the aisle is possible.
It is not a place where facts are mutually accepted and individuals of good will can look at them and come to opposite but equally valid conclusions.
The distance is too vast, the gulf unbridgeable.
We already knew this, of course, before Trump was impeached by the Democratic House of Representatives and put on trial by the Republican Senate,
a trial that has been fast-tracked toward his inevitable acquittal.
But what a sad and powerful demonstration of the phenomenon we are witnessing.
On Thursday night, at the start of one of his most passionate—and ultimately partisan—speeches, the lead House manager, Adam Schiff,
began by making an overture to the senators, going on at great length about their fairness and thanking them for keeping “an open mind.”
To say this was aspirational would be a stretch.
Schiff knew there were few, if any, open minds in the Senate, where, in the course of twenty-four hours spread across three days,
he and his fellow House managers made their opening arguments.
The House team’s approach to the problem of having an essentially unpersuadable audience was to veer between lengthy and at times repetitive
PowerPoint-enabled recitations of the evidence against Trump—which was plentiful—and impassioned appeals to the Senate to do something about it.
As the week built toward the House managers’ Friday-evening close, the level of passion seemed to rise, along with every senatorial tweet and TV interview confirming
that their eloquence was largely lost on their audience.
On Friday afternoon, Hakeem Jeffries, of New York, offered an impressive recap of the lengths to which the White House went
to keep Trump’s Ukraine pressure campaign secret.
He cited names and dates for the cover-up.
At the end of his presentation, his tone changed.
“There’s a toxic mess at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” Jeffries, who is often pegged as a future Speaker of the House, said.
“I humbly suggest that it’s our collective job on behalf of the American people to try to clean it up.”
A few hours later, Jerry Nadler, the House Judiciary Committee chairman and another of the managers, went further.
After outlining Trump’s assertion of essentially unlimited executive privilege and pointing out that Trump is the first President to categorically refuse to provide a single
witness or document in response to a congressional impeachment inquiry, Nadler compared Trump to a would-be king.
Trump is “the first and only President ever to declare himself unaccountable,” Nadler said.
If he is left unchecked by Congress, Nadler concluded,
“He is a dictator. This must not stand.”
In his own closing, Schiff hit many of the same themes.
He ran through a litany of Trump’s obstructive acts.
“That has been proved,” he said, over and over again, as he checked off each item on his list.
His disdain for the President was palpable.
(“For a man who loves to mock others, he does not like to be mocked,” Schiff, a frequent target of Trump’s attacks, said.)
And then he ended with an homage to “moral courage” and the real political bravery needed in “disagreeing with our friends—and our party.”
It was a moving speech, as Schiff’s usually are, and it sought to acknowledge that Republicans would have to do something very brave indeed:
listen to his case and truly hear it.
He even proposed that Republicans merely punt the remaining question of whether to call witnesses in the trial to Chief Justice John Roberts,
who is presiding over the Senate proceeding.
“Give America a fair trial,” he implored.
“She’s worth it.”
But, of course, it was not to be.
Indeed, a riff in Schiff’s speech citing a CBS story that Trump associates had reportedly threatened that any Republican who dared to vote against Trump
would end up with his or her “head on a pike” soon had G.O.P. senators claiming to be offended and outraged by Schiff’s words.
As Schiff was speaking, the Associated Press tweeted out a news story that captured the moment.
It said, “Democrats do not appear close to getting the 4 GOP votes needed for witnesses to appear in President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.”
The game is all but over.
Who, in the end, were they speaking to?
And to what end?
Jeffries and Nadler and Schiff spoke of Trump as a liar running a dangerously dysfunctional Administration
—which counts as an incontrovertible truth in their world but clearly does not in that of the Republican senators.
Those senators, after all, have been Trump’s enablers and supporters for three years now, no matter how initially reluctant they were to back him.
They have voted almost entirely in lockstep with his priorities, even those that diverged from the Party’s previously held orthodoxies
or the senators’ own longstanding beliefs.
If Trump’s Washington is the toxic hot mess that Jeffries spoke of, these folks cannot conduct the cleanup.
They voted for the pollution.
There are two observations from the Senate floor that stick with me after three long days of hearing the House present its case.
These observations speak to how essentially impossible the task of addressing the jury was for Schiff and his fellow-prosecutors.
The Republican John Kennedy, a canny Rhodes Scholar from Louisiana who is nonetheless known for his folksy observations, told a reporter,
as he headed into the arguments on Friday morning, that the managers had made a mistake in reading their audience.
“Very few souls are saved after the first twenty minutes of the sermon,” he said.
Less charitable was the view of Mazie Hirono, a Democrat from Hawaii, who said that she had been watching her Republican colleagues squirm in their chairs
and understood that nobody likes to be forced to listen to something that they disagree with.
“Most of us get restless when we are presented with information we don’t want to hear,” Hirono said, and of course she was right.
Imagine doing that for twelve hours or more a day, confined to a hard wooden seat, with no food and every bathroom break you take scrutinized by reporters as proof
that you are not taking your job seriously.
That, roughly, is the predicament in which the Senate Republican members found themselves this week.
It is no surprise that they looked unhappy.
But, still, if the goal of the House managers was to sway any votes, then it is hard not to see their presentation of the case as a failure.
On Thursday night, the Republican Rob Portman, of Ohio, spoke to CNN’s Manu Raju outside the chamber and made what counts these days
as a concession of sorts to the Democrats.
Portman acknowledged that Trump’s withholding of millions in military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine,
as he sought politically motivated investigations, was problematic behavior.
“Some of the things that were done were not appropriate,” Portman said.
“I’ve used the word ‘wrong’ and ‘inappropriate.’
That’s a very different question than removing someone from office who was duly elected, in the middle of a Presidential election.”
This, in effect, is what I would have expected Republican senators to say in defense of Trump in a previous, less polarized era.
It is a modified, updated, Trumpified version of the defense that Democratic senators used twenty-one years ago in voting to acquit Bill Clinton on charges of lying
under oath about an extramarital affair:
Wrong, bad, inexcusable, but does not rise to the level of impeachment and removal from office.
Had Senate Republicans adopted this argument en masse, the trial would still have the same partisan outcome, but at least it would have taken place
in the world of shared facts and expectations.
But Portman is no longer the mainstream of the G.O.P.; the center has not held.
On Friday afternoon, Judy Woodruff, of PBS, asked Portman’s colleague Deb Fischer, of Nebraska, whether she at least accepted “their premise” that Trump had asked
Ukraine to investigate his 2020 political rival, former Vice-President Joe Biden.
“I don’t,” Fischer said.
This is remarkable stuff.
What must the Senate chaplain make of such willful defiance of the facts?
The demand from Trump to investigate Biden—by name, no less!—is right in the summary of his July 25th call with the Ukrainian President
—the “perfect” phone call, as Trump calls it.
The President has tweeted dozens of times since September urging Americans to “READ THE TRANSCRIPT!”
How is it possible that one of the hundred senators is so disdainful of her duty that she has not bothered to do so or, if she has,
is so willing to ignore what it so plainly says?
This is not a serious defense of Trump, of course, but it is amazingly revealing.
The Senate trial of twenty-one years ago was for the Rob Portmans; the Senate trial of today is for the Deb Fischers.
There is no audience for Adam Schiff, or if there is it has shrunk to a small handful of Republicans who may or may not vote next week
to keep the trial going with witnesses and further evidence.
For the rest of the Republicans and the forty per cent or so of America that has unflinchingly supported Trump through his Presidency,
there will be another show, produced personally by the showman-in-chief.
That starts on Saturday, when the Trump legal team began its opening arguments.
Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, a Harvard Law School graduate who was the solicitor general of Texas before he became a senator, told the conservative radio host
Hugh Hewitt, in an interview on Friday morning, that he was actively advising the Trump legal team after hours of sitting on the Senate floor each day.
He said that he told the President’s lawyers, “No. 1, focus on substance more and process less.”
Don’t expect much substance.
On Thursday morning, Trump gave a clear indication of the kind of defense he wants and where his mind is as he directs his lawyers.
After “having to endure hour after hour of lies, fraud & deception by Shifty Schiff, Cryin’ Chuck Schumer & their crew,” Trump tweeted,
“looks like my lawyers will be forced to start on Saturday, which is called Death Valley in T.V.”
Later, Trump’s private lawyer for the impeachment, Jay Sekulow, elaborated, in the language of show business preferred by the reality-TV star in the White House.
Saturday’s presentation by the Trump legal team will be like a “trailer,” Sekulow told reporters, during a break on Friday—a preview of “coming attractions.”
The show, for a few more days at least, will go on.