“Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest…And if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”
Alan Dershowitz, senior member of President Trump’s legal defense team, shocked the political media-verse with this quote, given in response to a question by Ted Cruz, during the marathon Q&A portion of Trump’s impeachment trial. With these words, Dershowitz doesn’t contest President Trump’s actions. He doesn’t try to argue that the facts aren’t the facts. His argument is a politician’s reelection is good for the public; therefore that grants that same politician broad leeway to do whatever they can to get reelected, ultimately implying that a removal of said politician for simply doing his job is tantamount to an overturning of election results or, more dramatically, a coup.
My first inclination, like many others, was to be surprised by this sentiment, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that presidents being acquitted of their crimes is actually the norm, not the exception. The impeachment mechanism, built into the Constitution by the Framers, is a political tool that has never been utilized in full. Impeachment has only “worked” in one instance, Nixon, but in that case, Congress never formalized the charges, a credible threat was all that was needed. In every other case, the President was acquitted.
So why even empower Congress with this unwieldy tool to begin with? The foundation of it is inherently problematic, pitting one duly elected branch against the other, and it inherently puts Congress at a disadvantage, forcing a large diverse group of people to agree on the culpability of one person. Congress has vehemently disagreed over much less, so getting a broad consensus over something this dire seems unlikely to say the least, especially in this partisan climate. This all made worse by the culmination of two trends in the American political landscape: the acceptance that reelection is part of a politician’s job and the transformation of the presidency and by extension, the executive branch into a de facto monarchy.
More broadly, I would posit that the impeachment of Donald Trump is an unmitigated flash point in the confluence of money in politics poisoning our system and the gradual liberation of the imperialist presidency.
No money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy votes.
If we calculated the total amount of money spent lobbying Congress in 2018 it would come out to around 3.45 billion. Bayer AG, Lockheed Martin, and Facebook and many more all spent over 10 million dollars each lobbying Congress in 2018. Of the 100 top-spending lobbying organizations, 95 represent corporations, while companies outspend labor unions and public-interest entities 34-to-1.
In 2018, 95.4% of House races were won by the candidate who raised the most money during their campaign. In the Senate, that same number came out to 82.9%. Politicians know this and each of the parties have accepted this fact. In 2017, documents were leaked to the Huffington Post, outlining this depressing directive given out by both parties to its members. Ryan Grim and Sabrina Siddiqui, writing for the Huffington Post, go on to say, “Congressional hearings and fundraising duties often conflict, and members of Congress have little difficulty deciding between the two — occasionally even raising money from the industry covered by the hearings they skip. It is considered poor form in Congress — borderline self-indulgent — for a freshman to sit at length in congressional hearings when the time could instead be spent raising money.”
Given that candidates need to raise money in order to win and both the party and the donors realize this, it’s more than fair to ask what the return on that investment is?
What do donors get?
Influence. Plain and simple.
- If you are a pharmaceutical company, you might lobby Congress and donate to their reelection, in order to “convince them” to vote against lowering drug prices.
- If you are a healthcare company, you might lobby Congress and donate to their reelection in order to convince Congress of the insanity of even the most modest opening up of Medicare.
- If you are a tax preparation company, you might lobby Congress and donate to their reelection in order to keep the tax filing process a byzantine minefield and make filing for free less accessible.
- If you are tech billionaire, you might lobby Congress and donate to their reelection, in order to stave off even the slightest bit of regulation and control.
- If you are a president, you might lobby Congress and donate to their reelection, in order to avoid an impeachment conviction.
Money is what makes our system purr, Trump is just far more conspicuous about it.
According to an investigation by the Courier Journal, ”Several members of President Donald Trump’s impeachment defense team recently gave money to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s 2020 reelection campaign… Ken Starr, who famously prosecuted former President Bill Clinton in his impeachment trial before joining Trump’s team, gave the maximum individual contribution allowed — $2,800 — to the McConnell Senate Committee on July 31, 2019…Another member of the president’s impeachment defense team, Robert Ray, gave a total of $5,600 to the McConnell Senate Committee through two separate donations — one for the primary election, one for the general — on Sept. 30, 2019.” In addition he regularly met with Republican Senators prior to the trial to make his case, essentially coordinating with them how the trial would proceed, while funnelling additional money to Republican reelection campaigns in need of cash.
I’m not even that angry about Trump’s acquittal. That part was known from the beginning. The most depressing bit is that nowadays these blatant conflicts of interest play out in broad daylight, on primetime, and no one questions it. It’s Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham going on TV and claiming outright that they will not be impartial, opting instead to coordinate with Trump at every step of the way. Now, in a logical system, every single Senator who rigged the trial in Trump’s favor and voted to acquit him will be punished at the polls in November. I fear that won’t be the case though, because the normalization of what is essentially partisan bribery makes it so.
Congress’ power has slowly eroded in the face of an imperialistic presidency, not just when it comes to Trump but with Clinton and Reagan and Barack and Nixon.
And I’m not sure what to do about it. The phrase “money in politics” gets thrown around a lot. It’s a catchy sound byte that doesn’t do justice to the decades of pernicious warping of our political structures that began long ago. Money is what makes our system purr. Trump is just far more conspicuous about it, and so far his consequences have been little to none, in no small part due to the vast array of levers a president or frankly any politican can pull for just the right amount of money.
As a voter, seeing all this is disheartening. It makes it real easy to feel small and unimportant. It can be tempting to write this all off as distant corruption that wasn’t going to change no matter who was in power. What’s the point when people far more powerful than you can effectively cancel out your vote with enough money, and this not because these rich people have any real closely held beliefs, but because of their bottom line.
Imperialism is so fifteenth century.
For almost a century, Congress’ power has slowly eroded in the face of an imperialistic presidency, not just when it comes to Trump but with Clinton and Reagan and Barack and Nixon. Every single president has flouted Congress, sure of their own wisdom over the will of our deliberative body.
I wrote a piece a few months ago about the executive branch’s steady encroachment on the war powers of Congress over the last century, a process that began in the aftermath of World War II and continues to this day.
In 2013, Obama tried to extract from Congress a war powers resolution authorizing him to go to war with Syria via a bombing campaign. Congress refused. Jay Newton Small, writing for TIME, says “Congress does not have the political will to approve a War Powers Resolution when the American people have very little appetite for war...Getting the approval of Congress before the November elections to bomb ISIS targets in Iraq would likely require an attack on American soil or a very imminent threat of danger. Members of Congress want to secure their own re-elections and this type of vote could be the defining factor in several tight Senate races across the country.” What takes precedence?
Small goes on to say, “Congress has a spotty history of authorizing hostilities under this President. The House only succeeded on its third try in passing a tepid authorization for action in Libya — more than three months after U.S. involvement in Libya actually began. On Syria, both chambers balked at authorizing hostilities after Obama asked for support in the wake Syrian strongman Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. When congressional support disappeared, Obama was forced to make a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to rid Syria of chemical weapons, rather than using force against Assad.”
People like you and me are so treated harsher under the law than the people who are supposed to be held to the highest of standards.
Allison Durkee, writing for Mic, about Nixon and Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War, says, “The [Pentagon] papers contained a great deal of damaging information on the U.S.’ controversial involvement in Vietnam. Among the claims found in the documents were revelations that President John F. Kennedy actively helped to assassinate and overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963; that the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam had “no real impact on the enemy’s will to fight,” contradicting the U.S. government’s public pronouncements; that President Lyndon B. Johnson began planning war against Vietnam in 1964, one year before the U.S.’ involvement in Vietnam became publicly known; and that Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnam against the U.S. intelligence community’s advice — among other pieces of damaging information.”
It’s not just when it comes to war either. President Trump engaged in an unprecedented level of stonewalling of Congress, during the House of Representative’s impeachment inquiry. He has flaunted the Presidential Records Act — originally designed to prevent Watergate-level catastrophes — time and time again, even going so far as announcing “that ICE could go ahead and start destroying records from Mr. Trump’s first year, including detainees’ complaints about civil rights violations and shoddy medical care.” He has brazenly broken laws and violated the constitution time and time again, with little political will from Congress to do anything about it.
Congress doesn’t care that much about exercising said power. For every congressman who wants to repeal the 2001 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF), there are two who would much to look the other way. Recently, President Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo flirted with using that same AUMF to pursue war with Iran. Some of that carelessness has to do with the surety that their reelection is bought and paid for, the sports like nature of our politics, and the relative ease of scapegoating.
This pattern is worrisome, especially in an age where if a president is able to hold onto thirty four senators, which as I’ve outlined above is more than possible, then that president has license to do as they please. As a voter, it’s frustrating and disheartening. People like you and me are so treated harsher under the law than the people who are supposed to be held to the highest of standards. It would be easy to think that being engaged is fruitless, that caring is fruitless.
The most consequential election of our lifetime.
I know it’s cheesy and overwrought to say that we’re at a crossroads, but we are and paying attention to all of this is more important than ever. President Trump as been acquitted of his impeachment charges. That is true, but several things can be true at once. Impeachment can be effective, principled and the only way forward, while not ultimately succeeding. Your average politician’s prime concern is for their own well being, but some are far far far better people and politicians than others, and finally the President isn’t above the law yet.
Our nation’s history has led us to this point, with a president acting in flagrant violation of Congress. As Mitt Romney, the only Republican Senator to vote for Trump’s conviction, said, “I acknowledge that my verdict will not remove the President from office. The results of this Senate Court will in fact be appealed to a higher court: the judgement of the American people. Voters will make the final decision.” November will be a proof point really, an ultimate test of two things: does money insulate our leadership from accountability and is Congress forever weakened in the face of an imperialist president. I still have hope that the answer to both of those questions is no, but not because of anything Congress has done. It’s us. It has always been up to us to win at the ballot box in November, only then will we truly know if the President is above the law.
If you liked this post, here are a few others I’ve written that you might enjoy: