Two weeks of impeachment hearings made some things clear.
The first and most important of them is that there is no good end to this.
If Republicans in the U.S. Senate defend and sustain President Donald Trump with the same fervor House Republicans have, several dangerous precedents will have been set. One of America’s two major parties will have said that compromising U.S. security in pursuit of personal political ends, bribing foreign leaders and obstructing justice just aren’t that big a deal.
The fact that the party that will be saying this historically has been the one most to fear unchecked government – and particularly executive – power just makes the irony even more painful and tragic.
But, if Donald Trump is removed from office, another dangerous precedent will have been set.
Impeachment and removal from office are supposed to be last resorts, used only in rare and exceptional circumstances.
In my lifetime, I have seen three presidents – Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and now Trump – face impeachment threats.
Nixon, Clinton and Trump don’t rate as moral exemplars. Their relationship to telling the truth has ranged from indifferent to actively hostile. In each case, their refusal to be honest landed them in serious trouble.
But there have been other scalawags to occupy the Oval Office.
And, prior to Nixon, only one other president – Andrew Johnson – had faced impeachment in America’s then nearly 200-year history under the Constitution.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, once we let the impeachment threat out of the bottle, it was hard to get it back in. Threatening presidents with impeachment, once unthinkable, became the norm.
Will the same thing happen if we actually remove one from office?
I’m not optimistic.
One look at the swift degradation of procedural and institutional protections in the U.S. Senate over the past 15 years tells us that there is no beer bottle or rusty pipe either party will hesitate to grab and use in the alley fight that has become our national politics. What once was considered incomprehensible, fast becomes acceptable and then the new standard for conduct.
If Donald Trump were to be removed from office, however much he may deserve it, we Americans would be naïve to think that using removal from office as a political weapon would end with this president.
And, yet, it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, for many Americans to stomach the brazenness with which this president and his enablers defy both the law and all standards of decency. The president’s absolute refusal to accept any responsibility for his actions or to the duties imposed on him by his high office puts not just members of the Republican Party, but all concerned Americans, in a difficult, even untenable, position.
That he does this deliberately for crass political reasons only makes the offense rankle more.
But that also should trouble thinking Republicans.
For the past two months, it has been clear to everyone but fully indoctrinated members of the Trump cult that what the president did was wrong. The central question always has been whether Trump’s offense was great enough to merit the remedy of removal from office.
The smart play for the GOP would have been to try to acknowledge the wrongdoing, skip the public hearings and confront that essential question head on.
They didn’t, and they are likely to pay for that misjudgment.
By resisting the inquiry and insisting on legalistic standards that do not apply to a political process such as impeachment, the president’s Republican defenders may have motivated his rabid base even more.
But that increased energy among the fervid has come at the cost of alienating the once reliably Republican American suburbs, which is where the great political fights in this country are likely to occur for the next several election cycles.
There are Republicans, I know, who see the danger Donald Trump presents to both their party and the nation, but they feel powerless to confront it.
That’s the problem with grabbing a tiger by the ears.
It’s impossible to hang on, but suicidal to let go.