McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why Democrats made the right call on witnesses

Mitch McConnell. Photo (cc) 2014 by Gage Skidmore.

And so it’s over. In the aftermath of Impeachment II, the main controversy is about whether the Democrats did the right thing in reversing themselves over calling witnesses. I think they made a wise judgment. And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy shows why.

In a blistering speech, McConnell endorsed the entire factual basis of the Democrats’ case against Trump. “There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of that day,” McConnell said. “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instructions of their president.” And there was this:

Even after it was clear to any reasonable observer that Vice President Pence was in danger, even as the mob carrying Trump banners was beating cops and breaching perimeters, the president sent a further tweet attacking his vice president. Predictably and foreseeably under the circumstances, members of the mob seemed to interpret this as further inspiration to lawlessness and violence.

Yet McConnell still voted against conviction, relying on the bogus argument that a vote to convict was unconstitutional because Trump is no longer in office.

At the end of all this, no reasonable person doubts that Trump incited the mob — not just on Jan. 6, but over the course of many months. No reasonable person doubts that he was reveling in the destruction, or that Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was telling the truth about a toxic exchange between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump. Seven Republicans voted to convict Trump, making this the most bipartisan impeachment in history.

Given all that, it’s time for the Democrats to move on and let the center of gravity finally shift from Donald Trump to President Joe Biden.

Not everyone agrees, of course. The normally pragmatic Josh Marshall was apoplectic Saturday, writing in Talking Points Memo that the decision not to call witnesses was “inexplicable and maddening, to many or most Democrats outside the chamber because Democrats appeared to hold all the cards and all the votes and yet capitulated entirely.”

But I thought Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson made a better argument:

While it’s reasonable to imagine that witnesses would illustrate Trump’s depravity, it seems entirely likely that, as Trump’s lawyers continued simply to lie and their lies got spread through right-wing media as truth, Americans would have learned the opposite of what they should have.

Instead, the issue of Trump’s guilt on January 6 will play out in a courtroom, where there are actual rules about telling the truth.

We have lived through a terrible time, and it’s not over yet. The future direction of the Republican Party is far from certain, and it’s easy to imagine a thoroughly Trumpified party recapturing the House in 2022 as a result of gerrymandering and low voter turnout.

What we all need to concentrate on for the next two years is good governance — pushing for policies and programs that help people and, as best we can, putting the Trump era behind us. Biden is off to a good start, but a continuing obsession with Trump will hold him back. And that will hurt everyone.

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Trump’s five years of incitement finally reach their logical end point

I half-expected to wake up this morning hearing martial music on the radio and an announcement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that President Pence would be speaking soon.

Instead, Donald Trump is still president. In the early-morning hours, he finally conceded the race and promised an orderly transition of power to Joe Biden, though he refused to abandon his false assertion that he actually won the election — a toxic lie that led directly to Wednesday’s insurrection.

What led Trump to back down? We can be pretty sure what it wasn’t. Even the rioting and the fatal shooting of a Trump supporter in the Capitol weren’t enough to stop him from releasing an incendiary video in which his call for calm was completely overshadowed by his words of support for the insurrectionists. It was so horrifying that Twitter and Facebook both took it down.

It seems more likely that Trump’s change in tactics came as the result of what The Washington Post described as serious talk among “some senior administration officials” to invoke the 25th Amendment and remove him from office before his term expires on Jan. 20. Something like that may have begun Wednesday evening, when Vice President Pence but not Trump was consulted on whether the National Guard should be called out — a clear violation of the chain of command, but understandable under the circumstances.

Trump should be removed anyway. As we saw Wednesday, he is far too dangerous to leave in power even for another day. “The president needs to be held accountable — through impeachment proceedings or criminal prosecution — and the same goes for his supporters who carried out the violence,” The New York Times editorialized. The Post called for Trump’s removal under the 25th Amendment, arguing: “The president is unfit to remain in office for the next 14 days. Every second he retains the vast powers of the presidency is a threat to public order and national security.”

Naturally, the radical Republicans who continue to support Trump are pointing their fingers at anyone but themselves. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham, Brit Hume and others have tried to blame the violence on left-wing infiltrators from antifa groups, an absurd and offensive proposition for which there is zero evidence. As Molly Ball of Time magazine put it, “The amazing thing about ‘it might have been antifa’ is that Trump literally summoned these people to DC, spoke at their event, offered to walk them over to the Capitol and then praised them afterward.”

One of the more interesting questions today is whether Trump might face criminal charges for inciting violence, as the Times editorial suggests. Of course, Trump has been inciting his followers for months — for years, even. But the key to criminal charges would be the speech he delivered to the mob shortly before it began its rampage through the Capitol.

According to the Times’ account of his speech, he did not explicitly call for violence, although he indulged in incendiary rhetoric such as “you will never take back our country with weakness.” On the other hand, Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat” and Donald Trump Jr. — speaking of Republican members of Congress who were not supporting the effort to overturn the election — said, “We’re coming for you.”

An investigation might well conclude that they had crossed the line, and of course it was the president himself who was aiding and abetting such calls. “There’s no question the president formed the mob,” the Times quoted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., as telling Fox News. “The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”

There’s so much more that we need to know. I’ve heard a lot of criticism that the police essentially enabled the violent Trumpers just months after a massive show of force put down Black Lives Matter rallies. From what I’ve seen, the problem Wednesday is that the police were vastly outnumbered. An overly aggressive response in such a situation could have led to an even greater disaster. But why were they outnumbered? Why was the planning for Wednesday so poor given that we all knew a Trumper mob was descending upon the city?

Needless to say, we also need to know more about Ashli Babbitt, the Air Force veteran and Trump supporter who was fatally shot inside the Capitol, reportedly by a Capitol Police officer. Three others also died after experiencing “medical emergencies, according to reports.

Wednesday was a day that will live in infamy as five years of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric reached its logical end point. “What happened at the U.S. Capitol today was an insurrection, incited by the President of the United States,” said Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah.

What we need, I suspect, is a new conservative party untainted by Trumpism and led by people of conscience like Romney. The notion seemed absurd even a few days ago. But just as the Republicans supplanted the Whigs in the 1840s and ’50s, it may be time for the Republicans to be supplanted by a party committed to principle and democracy.

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With the outcome out of our hands, this would be a good time to relax — if you can

Photo (cc) 2020 by Adam Schultz/Biden for President

Twenty-eight years ago today, also a Sunday, I got up in the pre-dawn hours in order to drive a neighbor to the airport. Before returning home, I stopped at my favorite diner, ordered breakfast and spread out that day’s New York Times. The coverage pointed to a victory by Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

The news in today’s Times foretells a similar outcome. The latest Times/Sienna College poll of likely voters shows Joe Biden with a lead over President Trump in four key battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Only Florida seems close enough that it could slip away. With the FiveThirtyEight model giving Biden a 90% chance of winning and The Economist up to 95%, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that we can finally put Trump in the rear-view mirror.

And yes, we all know what happened four years ago. Shocking as it was, though, Biden has held a larger, more durable lead over Trump than Hillary Clinton ever did. James Comey wasn’t around to deliver a late, devastating hit only to say “never mind.” The media have been smarter and more responsible about Trumpist disinformation, such as Tara Reade’s unsupportable allegations and the laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. Last week, NBC News even reported that documents circulating in the fever swamps of the right were not only fake, but had been produced by a fake company headed by a fake person whose fake face had been created using artificial intelligence.

In these final hours before the polls close on Tuesday, we are hearing lots of anxiety-inducing stories about voters being turned away, ballots getting lost and thugs in Texas threatening a Biden campaign bus, resulting in the cancellation of several Biden rallies. As disturbing as this is, I think we’d all be better off if we relaxed as best we can until it’s over. Have you voted? Will you vote? Good. For most of us, that’s all we can do.

Fortunately, Biden seems likely to win by a large enough margin to withstand whatever assault on the vote’s legitimacy Trump tries to mount. It’s not over till it’s over, of course. Right now, though, it looks like we can soon look forward to a victory by Biden and Kamala Harris — and to our country returning to some semblance of normal.

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Harris needed to come across as a plausible president. She succeeded.

A few minutes before the vice presidential debate started, it occurred to me that Mike Pence might not be all that broken up if President Trump loses. Rather than being trapped by the whims of a dictatorial incumbent, Pence could begin his 2024 presidential campaign.

I’m not saying that Pence tanked it Wednesday night. He made most of the points that he needed to make, and he did it more effectively than Trump did last week — which is to say that Pence didn’t suffer a meltdown on national television. But he struck me as lethargic and semi-engaged. He also looked terrible, with an unexplained red eye that was the talk of Twitter. It was almost as if he’d been around people with COVID-19. When was his last test?

I thought Kamala Harris was very good, especially in the first half-hour, when she dismantled the Trump’s administration’s horrendous record on the pandemic. She was also effective in calling out Pence for mansplaining and for disregarding the time limits. The debate probably won’t have much effect on the race, although Harris, as a newcomer and a woman of color, had to come across as a plausible president. And she did. A CNN instant poll showed that respondents thought Harris won by a margin of 59% to 38%, which is pretty much in line with Trump’s disastrous polling in recent days.

One area in which Pence had a clear advantage was in lying, according to David Leonhardt, who writes The New York Times’ morning newsletter. Leonhardt has a list. From taxes to health care, from climate change to mail-in voting, Pence lied about Trump’s record and Biden’s positions in a way that went well beyond what’s considered “normal” in political rhetoric, Leonhardt says.

The problem with such a blizzard of lies is that no candidate can call out all of them, and even when she does, the viewers’ takeaway is that they’re both lying.

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The most important veep debate ever, played out in the midst of a national crisis

Previously published at GBH News.

If, as James Nance Garner once said, the vice presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit” (and, uh, no, he probably didn’t quite put it that way), then the quadrennial vice presidential debate falls below even that low bar. The memorable moments over the years, such as they were, can be summarized as “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “Who am I? Why am I here? ” and Sarah Palin winking at the camera.

But given the gerontological cast of the two presidential candidates, tonight’s encounter between Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic challenger, Sen. Kamala Harris, promises to be more significant than usual. Pence’s boss, President Donald Trump, is 74 and is currently recovering from COVID-19. The top of the Democratic ticket, former Vice President Joe Biden, is 77, and though his health seems fine, he would be the oldest person by far to be elected president. Thus Pence and Harris both give new meaning to the phrase “a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

The presidential campaign itself has been marked by more improbable twists and turns than a self-published mystery novel — from impeachment to stunning revelations about Trump’s taxes, from a worldwide pandemic to economic collapse. In recent days, though, with early voting already under way, it’s begun to seem like the final plot developments are slipping into place.

First, Trump’s catching COVID seems like a metaphor for his entire horrendous response to a disease that has now killed more than 210,000 of his fellow Americans. Just as with the country as a whole, he has shown blatant disregard for those in his immediate circle, resulting in what amounts to a mini-pandemic ripping through the White House and among top Senate Republicans.

He held indoor and outdoor events for his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, at which few people wore masks. Because of characteristic obfuscation and lying by him and his staff, we don’t know exactly when he was diagnosed or how sick he really is. He put his own Secret Service agents at risk by cruising around Walter Reed Hospital.

And let’s face it. Even though no decent person wants Trump to become seriously ill, it sent a terrible message to the country for him to announce, as he did on Monday after being discharged from the hospital, “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Not only is that an insult to the dead and those still struggling with the after-effects of the virus, but it’s also not the way to encourage mask-wearing and social-distancing.

Second, Biden may be on his way to a decisive if not overwhelming victory. Among media observers, the narrative in place since March has been that if Trump loses, it will be because of COVID and the economy. Don’t you believe it.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden has held a steady lead over Trump since October 2019, which makes sense given that Trump is a historically unpopular president. That lead has been widening in recent days, with a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted after the first chaotic debate putting Biden ahead by a margin of 53% to 39%.

Of course, it’s not over till it’s over. Biden’s lead in the handful of states that will determine whether he can win an Electoral College victory is narrower than it is in the national polls, and we still don’t know how Republican efforts to suppress the vote will play out, or if with Russian propaganda will have an effect.

The most likely scenario, though, is that we’ll find ourselves looking back after the votes are tallied and see that our belief that Trump would somehow pull one last, ginormous trick out of a hat was grounded more on flashbacks to 2016 than on the last four years. Many of us have watched in amazement as Trump’s approval rating has never dipped much below 40%. The corollary, of course, is that it’s never risen much above that, either. Almost from the day he was inaugurated, more than half the country has has disapproved of Trump’s performance as president. And between now and Nov. 3, they can register that disapproval at the polls.

But first comes the encounter between Pence and Harris. Pence is easily caricatured as the ultimate Trump suck-up whose base doesn’t extend much beyond the evangelical vote. Four years ago, though, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, couldn’t put a dent in him. Pence is better at this sort of thing than his detractors imagine.

Fortunately for the Democrats, Harris is a considerably more nimble debater than the hapless Kaine. At one time I thought she might be her party’s strongest presidential candidate, but her uneven campaign took her out of contention. Despite that, she is a first-rate political talent, smart, personable and — the key, given Biden’s age — credible as a possible president.

Given that Biden, if he wins, would be 82 by the time his first term ends, it seems more than likely that both Harris and Pence will be running for president four years from now. Look at tonight as a rehearsal for 2024 — played out in the midst of one of the worst crises our country has experienced.

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Wall St. Journal’s newsroom calls out opinion section over Pence’s COVID falsehoods

The Wall Street Journal’s excellent newsroom is calling out its often-nutty opinion section. The Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus reports that an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence earlier this week in which he praised the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 had some, uh, problems:

Mr. Pence wrote that as of June 12, Project Airbridge had delivered more than 143 million N95 masks, 598 million surgical and procedural masks, 20 million eye and face shields, 265 million gowns and coveralls and 14 billion gloves.

According to FEMA data, through June 18 the program had delivered 1.5 million N95 masks, 113.4 million surgical masks, 2.5 million face shields, 50.9 million gowns, 1.4 million coveralls and 937 million gloves. The total number of those supplies is about 7% — or one-thirteenth — of the numbers cited in Mr. Pence’s article.

We talked about the Journal’s decision to publish Pence’s dubious propaganda Friday on “Beat the Press” (above). At the time, I thought the problem was more a matter of absurdly optimistic spin in the face of rising infection rates in many states rather than factual inaccuracies. I may be been giving Pence too much credit.

I still think Sen. Tom Cotton’s recently op-ed in The New York Times was worse, since he falsely claimed antifa involvement in Black Lives Matter protests in order to justify military attacks on Americans.

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Pence’s petulance undescores his tricky relationship with Trump

Mike Pence. Photo (cc) 2015 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Few members of the Trump administration have carried themselves with more unctuous sycophancy than Mike Pence. “Thank you, Mr. President, and just the greatest privilege of my life is to serve as vice president to a president who’s keeping his word to the American people,” the former Indiana governor said at that North Korean-style cabinet meeting back in June. At joint public appearances, Pence gazes at President Trump with a mixture of admiration, gratitude, and sheer astonishment at finding himself just a heartbeat away from the presidency.

But now Trump and Pence may be on the outs. The proximate cause is a New York Times story over the weekend reporting the not especially earthshattering news that Pence is keeping his powder dry in case Trump does not run for re-election in 2020. Much of the article, by Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, concerns the 2020 ambitions of Republicans such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, and Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton. But we also learn that Pence has been unusually active in boosting his political prospects, although he “has made no overt efforts to separate himself from the beleaguered president. He has kept up his relentless public praise and even in private is careful to bow to the president.”

This is all pretty unremarkable stuff. Pence himself, though, erupted as though he had been accused of mocking the size of Trump’s hands, calling the Times article“disgraceful and offensive to me, my family, and our entire team” as well as “categorically false.” As Chuck Todd of NBC News tweeted, “Sorta stunned that an obvious point from the NYT piece about a sitting VP’s own ambitions appears to be causing Team Pence such heartburn.”

What makes the Times article so sensitive, needless to say, is the nontrivial chance that Pence will be running for president in 2020 as the incumbent. Although it seems unlikely that Trump will be impeached and removed from office, the inexorable progress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation may well yield the sort of information that could persuade Trump to disappear. It’s a prospect that no doubt gladdens the hearts of congressional Republicans even more than Democrats, since they would be rid of their rage-tweeting ruler and his record low approval ratings. A Pence presidency would give them a chance to start over.

Yet Bill Kristol, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, seems unimpressed with the vice president. Kristol stirred the pot after the Times story was published by tweeting, “It’s bold of Team Pence to plant the front-page NYT story on plans for 2020, then object vociferously. Multi-dimensional chess!” And when Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted that Pence’s over-the-top response would “make one think Pence had committed theft stead of fluffing own brand,” Kristol retorted, “Pence committed the crimes of 1) theft of spotlight from @POTUS and 2) suspicion of less than total subservience to @POTUS even in private.”

Even before the Times story revealed the extent of Pence’s politicking, the vice president’s standing with Trump may have been more fragile than we outsiders imagine. There is, of course, Trump’s one-way definition of loyalty: he demands total fealty and gives back nothing in return. But Pence has also shown that he is not immune to the scent of blood in the water. As the columnist Richard North Patterson observed in The Boston Globe, Pence — whom Patterson described as “an incompetent ideologue, an obsequious toady, and a self-serving schemer” — made it clear to everyone last fall that he was available for the drafting when it looked like the “Access Hollywood” tape might sink Trump’s campaign.

Thus for all the deference Pence has shown, Trump may regard him as someone who is no better than former chief of staff Reince Priebus, who, as head of the Republican Party, reportedly urged Trump to drop out after the tape was exposed by The Washington Post. As an elected official in his own right, Pence, unlike Priebus, can’t be fired by Trump. But that doesn’t mean Pence’s position is entirely safe.

For anyone of moderate or liberal views, a Pence presidency might be even worse than what we’ve got now. Pence is well regarded on Capitol Hill, especially by House Speaker Paul Ryan. He knows how to handle himself in public. And he is an extreme right-wing ideologue who, you can be sure, would stand a far better chance than Trump of rolling back years of progress on issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive choice. The Affordable Care Act would once again be in danger. (On the other hand, Trump would no longer have access to the nuclear codes — no small thing given his unstable behavior.)

If there was any doubt, the Times article reminds us that Pence is ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he is ambitious in the way vice presidents normally are or if he is aggressively trying to take advantage of Trump’s weak position. In either case, he’s not going away. Even if Trump wants him to.

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In VP debate, Pence helps Pence—to Trump’s detriment

Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence in Phoenix, Arizona, earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore.

The vice presidential debate will be forgotten by the time Donald Trump launches his next tweetstorm. Tuesday night’s encounter between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence was, as Glenn Thrush puts it at Politico, “less a game-changer than a channel-changer.”

To the extent that it matters, though, post-debate media commentary focused on two developments that over the next five weeks may prove more problematic for Trump than for Hillary Clinton.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org.

About those Melania Trump photos (II)

Suddenly we have relevance. Today’s New York Post features a large front-page photo of Melania Trump and another woman, both of them nude and in an erotic embrace. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! But Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence, is among the most anti-gay elected officials in the country. Someone needs to question Pence about this. Would he allow Mrs. Trump to buy a cake in Indiana?

Trump’s comments about Russia and Clinton were no joke

Defenders of Donald Trump are trying to claim he was joking when he said at a news conference this morning that he hoped Russia had hacked Hillary Clinton’s email server and that it would expose “the 30,000 emails that are missing.” For instance, here’s Newt Gingrich on Twitter:

Now, there are several pieces of evidence out there that show Trump wasn’t joking at all. But one should be enough. Here’s the Washington Post:

“They probably have them. I’d like to have them released. . . . It gives me no pause. If they have them, they have them,” Trump added later when asked if his comments were inappropriate. “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, I mean, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”

That doesn’t sound like a joke to me.

So now we have a major-party presidential candidate—whose ties to Vladimir Putin are already under scrutiny (here is a good overview from the BBC)—inviting Russian intelligence to interfere in the presidential campaign more than it already has. He refuses to release his tax returns, which anti-Trump conservative George Will has pointed out could contain information about his dealings with Russia. And tonight he denied having met Putin, thus flatly contradicting previous statements. (He’s lying, but I don’t know which statement is the lie.)

House Speaker Paul Ryan should rescind his endorsement. Indiana Governor Mike Pence should resign from the ticket. Of course, neither will happen.

This is where we are at in the summer of 2016.