Yesterday, the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump began. The remarkable thing about it was the astonishment on the part of so many smart lawyers and pundits that the president’s lawyers were just…lying. Both Pat Cipollone and Jay Sekulow insisted that the Democrats had had a secret process from which Republicans were excluded: you will remember that this was a lie, fabricated for the television cameras. Observers were outraged.
But for Trump and his enablers, this trial is not about the truth; it never has been. It is about dominance and power.
Forcing someone to accept what they know to be untrue reinforces the dominance of the person telling the lies. Perpetrators will start with small, seemingly unimportant lies and cruelties that the victim is unlikely to challenge. But once the lie or cruelty has been accepted, the victim is less likely to challenge another one because it would mean having to confront the original. It snowballs. This is a well-known pattern that J. K. Rowling immortalized in the Harry Potter books with the relationship between Voldemort and his Death Eaters. And that pattern has always been Trump’s MO. Now, Trump is demanding we accept that his phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was A PERFECT PHONE CALL despite reams of evidence to the contrary.
For those of us unconvinced by Trump’s assertions, this reiteration of lies in the face of evidence does something else. It “flood[s] the zone with shit,” as Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon put it. By keeping us constantly trying to defend what is real from what is not, they destroy our ability to make sense of our world. Many people turn to a strongman who promises to create order. Others will get so exhausted they simply give up. This is what Vladimir Putin did in post-Soviet Russia, and it is now a common phenomenon in the United States.
What was going on today was a window into the fight between democracy and authoritarianism. The Democrats have made a stellar stand on fact and reality. The Republicans are flooding the zone.
The trial started with the president’s lawyers seemingly unprepared. After Chief Justice John Roberts entered the Senate chamber, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone had an hour to make an opening statement. He spoke for only three minutes, apparently expecting that the day would start with arguments about trial rules. He simply said that Trump “has done absolutely nothing wrong.” Then he yielded the floor.
Then it was Adam Schiff’s turn. Schiff is the Chair of the House Intelligence Committee and the leading House manager of impeachment. He launched into a 50-minute recounting of Trump trying to rig the 2020 election by pressuring Ukraine to smear Joe Biden and withholding vital military aid to do so. He reminded the Senators that they were required under oath to be fair and impartial jurors, and noted that if indeed Trump could not be removed under any circumstances, he was not a president but a king. He pointed out that every single impeachment trial in the Senate (remember that this would include federal judges as well as presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton) had testimony from witnesses and required the production of documentation. It was a speech for the ages.
When he finished, Justice Roberts reminded Cipollone that he still had 57 minutes. Cipollone asked Jay Sekulow to respond. But Sekulow was not prepared. While he was loud and angry, he wandered and had no real argument. He also lied in easily disproven ways. He did not engage with Schiff’s argument but instead fell back on the same points GOP leaders in the House kept hitting: that Democrats hated Trump and that the FBI had investigated Trump after the 2016 election. Cipollone then followed, attacking Schiff even more loudly. He, too, lied about the Democrats excluding Republicans from hearings.
But Schiff still had time. He methodically rebutted the GOP arguments.
And that was the pattern of the day. The Republican lawyers are simply reiterating Fox News Channel talking points; the Democrats, led by Schiff, are doing a masterful job of pointing out again and again that the GOP lawyers are lying. More importantly, the Democratic managers are carefully and methodically laying out the existing evidence concerning the Ukraine Scandal in clear, actually really interesting (surprisingly) ways.
There is a reason Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wanted this to happen in the dead of night.
The GOP opposed every amendment the Democrats proposed to permit testimony or documents, including letting Justice Roberts, who is theoretically impartial, decide whether or not witnesses were relevant. The GOP leaders do not want testimony, despite the fact that a new poll out today says that Americans, including 71% of Republicans, overwhelmingly want to hear witnesses at the Senate trial. Just before 2:00 am, the Senate adopted McConnell’s resolution establishing the rules by a party-line vote, and the Senate adjourned at 1:50. It reconvenes at 1:00 today.
A note on Trump’s lawyers. Pat Cipollone is White House Counsel, an official position, paid for by the US taxpayers. The White House Counsel is supposed to defend the legal interests of the office of the presidency.
The White House Counsel is not the president’s personal lawyer. That person would be Jay Sekulow, and the gang of other attorneys surrounding Trump. Those lawyers are not paid with tax dollars. While we cannot know where their checks come from, it is worth noting that campaign money can be used for legal expenses. Trump is the only president in history to file for reelection on Inauguration Day, and I have always thought that was at least in part about paying for legal bills. In October 2019, we learned that Trump’s campaign was paying 13 law firms, and that the campaign had spent $12 million on legal fees since 2017. As of February 2019, $100,000 of that went to the law firm representing Jared Kushner.
There are two other pieces of big news from yesterday.
While reports initially said that no Americans were injured in the Iranian attack on the Iraqi bases, we learned a few days ago that 11 soldiers were medically evacuated to hospitals in Kuwait and Germany. We learned today that there were more than 11, and that the number is apparently climbing.
Second: Do you remember the scandal about Amazon founder Jeff Bezos having an extramarital affair and going public about it after the National Enquirer tried to blackmail him about it? At the time, the National Enquirer said they had gotten the tip about the affair from Bezos’s affair partner’s brother, but his spokespeople made some cryptic comments about being hacked. The UN is going to release a report tomorrow saying that Bezos’s phone was hacked by the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, MBS, during a “friendly chat” (which raises the question of what other phones might have been compromised during friendly chats). Several months later, Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, who had been deeply critical of MBS, was murdered at MBS’s command, but Trump refused to acknowledge that connection. Trump has sharply criticized Bezos, who owns the Washington Post, and Jared Kushner is friendly with MBS.
How this will shake out is unclear, but my sense is that it is not going to be a little story.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17 2020. Subscribe for free here.