With the impeachment trial fizzling out this week, I’m left wondering if the GOP has lost its mind, because the only other choice is that I have.
I’m not referring to the Republican senators’ collective decision not to remove the president from office. I’ve always argued that this was a question reasonable people could differ on. But I’ve also argued for months now that it was clear the president was guilty of abusing his office by pressuring the Ukrainian government to target former Vice President Joe Biden in a corruption probe.
This has been obvious since he released the transcript of his conversation with the Ukrainian president, never mind when he said straight to a TV camera that he wanted Ukraine (and China) to do it.
For most of that time, taking their cues from the top, the president’s most ardent defenders treated this entirely reasonable observation as if it was both crazy and outrageous. The call was “perfect,” the president insisted over and over again. How dare you suggest otherwise.
Even reasonable people like my friend, radio host Hugh Hewitt, contended that even the suggestion of the president’s guilt was not just wrong, but bizarre. We live on “different impeachment planets,” in his words. Other defenders agreed. Roger Kimball, the erudite editor of New Criterion, thought Hewitt was being generous. “In my view,” he tweeted, “Hugh’s planet is this planet. I am not sure what solar system Jonah’s is circulating.”
Now what was otherworldly has suddenly become grounded. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Marco Rubio, R- Fla., were the first out of the block to explain that the president is guilty but shouldn’t be ousted for it.
In a statement, Rubio explained that he always worked from the assumption the charges were true, but: “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office.”
Alexander was even more emphatic. In his statement, he said the House managers “have proved [the charges] with what they call a ‘mountain of overwhelming evidence.’ ”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., agreed with Alexander’s position, telling reporters that he speaks for “lots and lots of us.”
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, went even further this week, saying, rightly, that the president’s conduct has been “shameful.”
Some Trumpists are grumbling about Murkowski, but it’s remarkable how it was so much more outrageous for Trump’s defenders to note Trump’s guilt when doing so might influence the trial. Now that he’s off the hook, few are calling these senators crazy for stating the obvious.
But such selective deployment of outrage is the GOP’s gift these days.
Consider that one of the best — as in effective — arguments of the White House legal team was that “partisan impeachments” are bad and if the Senate validates this one we will dive further into an “age of impeachment” — Kenneth W. Starr’s words — in which this constitutional mechanism will be weaponized for political advantage. It is difficult to exaggerate the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger hypocritical sanctimony from the president’s lead lawyers on this point.
But once the president’s acquittal was assured, Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said that now that the door to partisan impeachments had been opened, maybe Republicans should impeach Biden if he were elected. Her fellow Republicans didn’t rush to deny the possibility. Partisan impeachments, you see, aren’t bad anymore, they’re just bad when “they” do it.
One chapter in the Trump impeachment saga is ending, but the story is far from over. More evidence of the president’s guilt will come out, from former national security adviser John Bolton’s book and elsewhere. Indeed, one can be forgiven for thinking that the reason Rubio, Alexander and others felt the need to proclaim the president’s guilt has less to do with a desire to tell the truth and more with getting ahead of a future torrent of irrefutable facts.
Nor should we rule out that Trump, emboldened by his “exoneration,” will do something even worse.
Starr may be right that we are entering an “age of impeachment.” But if we are it will be because hypocrisy has lost its sting, shame is something only the other side should feel and telling the truth when it is inconvenient is a form of madness.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com.