A number of people whom the president has employed, defamed and then fired have slunk back to their master’s hand like beaten dogs. In John Bolton, Donald Trump has finally met his counterpunching match. Even as Trump’s defenders in the Senate trial were denying the factual basis for impeachment, leaks from Bolton’s book have confirmed it. Senate Republicans can no longer deny Trump’s quid pro quo of arms in exchange for slander without being deceptive or delusional.
Bolton’s bombshell comes on top of a comprehensive, well-argued case for conviction by House impeachment managers. Their presentation of the evidence, their version of constitutional interpretation and their appeal to senatorial self-respect were all compelling. The response of Republicans—putting fingers in their ears and loudly humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”—has been less impressive.
If Republican senators refuse to call new witnesses (including Bolton) under these circumstances, there would be only one plausible explanation: They fear Trump’s retribution. Such fear, of course, is justified. In this case, going off the reservation is to enter a minefield. The first few GOP defectors on the issue of witnesses would come under enormous pressure. The first few GOP senators who support conviction would face a torrent of abuse from an unstable, thuggish narcissist, and from people convinced that disloyalty to Trump is treason or blasphemy.
I don’t envy any public official this type of test. But a few facts remain—and the short timeframe and high stakes require bluntness.
First, understandable cowardice is still cowardice.
Second, it is not only Trump’s character that is being judged. If Trump has subordinated the public good to his personal interests—as he has certainly done—our reaction is a measure of our integrity. Tolerance for corruption is a form of corruption.
Third, the political risks I’m recommending, while difficult, are not comparable to the physical risks taken each day by soldiers, police officers and firefighters in service to the common good. Or to the risks taken by political dissidents and their families in Russia or China. Some moral perspective is in order.
Fourth, those who are honestly persuaded by the “disturbing but not impeachable” argument are not released from the duty to express their judgment. Every Republican senator who does not support Trump’s removal should publicly embrace some form of censure and be seeking a way to demonstrate this commitment en masse. Otherwise, the argument is nothing more than a convenient and transparent dodge.
Fifth, the “disturbing but not impeachable” argument is not convincing. Alexander Hamilton defined impeachable acts as “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” If trying to cheat in a presidential election by using congressionally appropriated military aid as leverage to strong-arm a vulnerable country into smearing a political opponent is not impeachable, then the term has no real-world application. Trump has, in fact, provided a case study that future constitutional law textbooks will use to illustrate the meaning of an impeachable offense.
Sixth, Trump’s self-defense is also an assault on the dignity of the Senate. Those senators who are not offended by the president’s threats against them if they display independent judgment have lost all pride in the Senate’s purpose. The constitutional balance of power no longer functions when the Senate cringes and cowers.
Seventh, the intimidation of Republican senators would demonstrate the triumph of verbal violence—Trump’s Twitter insults, his political threats, the White House’s reported promise to put disloyal heads on pikes—in Republican politics, and in the business of the Senate itself. American democracy would be confirmed as a place where menace is rewarded and bullies prosper.
Many senators avoid political risk because they believe that American politics would be impoverished by their absence. In some cases, this is true. But when this argument is employed to justify compromise on the largest issues of our public life—on basic commitments to electoral integrity, democratic accountability and ethical conduct—then self-justification begins to damage the public interest and the political enterprise is brought into disrepute. We need the best men and women in government. But the best men and women, by definition, hold certain values more dearly than political survival, including justice, integrity and fair play. Now is the time for leaders, not to preserve their public role, but to justify it.