We may be witnessing the end of the United States presidency as we know it. It doesn’t come in large, destructive gestures, like the demolition of the White House. Instead, we most often see it arrive in the mild utterances of old men. Such was the case on the Senate floor on Wednesday, when Alan Dershowitz spoke up in favor of President Trump’s autocracy.
We should have seen this coming, as Trump hardly ever misses an opportunity to reach for more power, not even amidst a process ostensibly about stripping it from him. Ironically and most unfortunately for the Democrats who sought even a modicum of accountability for President Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors, the impeachment process is being perverted into a process to make Trump into a dictator.
Trump’s defense against impeachment has, to this point, been somewhat bifurcated. At once, Trump was supposedly utterly innocent of the charges being brought against him — it was a perfect call with the Ukrainian president, we keep being told; just look at the White House’s doctored transcript — and it was also perfectly fine if Trump did everything he was charged with, because he is allowed to do whatever he likes. It was hard to discern which argument was more disturbing or less befitting of a president.
However, Dershowitz went all in with the latter on Wednesday in his response to Republican senator Ted Cruz’s question about whether posing a “quid pro quo” would ever be appropriate conduct. Dershowitz responded by asserting that a president had the powers to shield himself from impeachment merely because, well, if you’re a star, they let you do it.
“If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz offered.
Let’s pick that apart for a moment. “Broad” doesn’t adequately describe that standard. Leave aside the “quid pro quo” part of that — ”if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest” both is a confusing and alarming sentence. Presidents may be popularly elected, but I’d argue that no president is elected in the public interest. That is something that is proven over time by their service, and certainly not anything for the president — him or herself — to solely determine.
This kind of argument opens the door not only for disgraced president Richard Nixon to be exonerated for the Watergate break-in and cover-up, but for future presidents to do even worse. Would presidents, convinced that it is in the public interest for their discriminatory policies to continue, promote voter suppression to keep black and Hispanic people away from the polls if they believe it would help them get elected? Would they seek to cancel an election altogether? We consider these things hyperbolic, perhaps, but then look at what Dershowitz said on the Senate floor on Wednesday. That actually happened. This is actually happening.
He went on yesterday to argue that a more straightforward case of corruption would look like a president withholding funds unless a foreign leader put his name on a hotel and gave him a million-dollar kickback — a curious example, given who our president is. What isn’t an example of corruption, he argued, is what Trump is doing. “A complex middle case is, ‘I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was. And if I’m not elected, the national interest will suffer greatly,’ ” Dershowitz said. “That cannot be an impeachable offense.”
There were some confusion even amongst Republican senators after he was done, though they’ll surely end up buying it. House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ impeachment manager, slammed the “very odd argument” Dershowitz put forth, adding that “it’s carte blanche” for any president to request foreign interference in an election on his or her behalf.
That hits at the heart of what this is all about. Many ask, “Why are Republicans so desperate to defend this guy, Donald Trump of all people?” They miss the point. Republicans may not want to see Trump turning the State of the Union into a barnstorming complaint against impeachment, or perhaps they do. But the Senate majority doesn’t want to dodge John Bolton or a real investigation into the Burisma-Biden matter because simply because they are afraid to discover the truth about Trump’s personal guilt. This isn’t about ending all this before next Tuesday night to avoid some embarrassment. It isn’t about him.
This is about Republicans maintaining the ability to manipulate elections here at home. Trump, so desperate to win his election the first time, welcomed foreign interference along with the traditional domestic voter suppression his party offered. Pandora’s Box has been opened more widely than the president and the Republicans probably ever anticipated, and now they are willing to argue that Trump has the powers of an autocrat all so that they can maintain this ability to reach out to whomever they need to in order to win elections.
This is how reckless Republicans are with America, willing to give untold amounts of power to a man whom they still don’t fully understand in a frantic attempt to maintain their own grip on advantage in a country that has already elected a black president once and whose demographics are quickly turning against them.
The irony of it all is that Republicans, who have never made a real policy argument for black and Hispanic votes (and instead stigmatized and hindered them), are now stuck offering ridiculous reasoning to keep their charlatan, criminal president in office. It pays to have a case to make, but when the agenda is furthering white patriarchy and oligarchy at the expense of our natural resources, voter suppression becomes a useful tool.
This is how we end up with a lawyer standing on the floor of the Senate, already one of the most unrepresentative elected bodies, arguing for dictatorship.