The Senate impeachment trial playing out in Washington, D.C., is a history-making event, not just because it is only the third time that the Senate has ever been asked to formally consider removing a president, but also because it showcases, in stunning terms, the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of the Republican Party. It would be laughable, if it weren’t so tragic, to watch defenders of President Donald Trump tying themselves into knots in attempting to prove his innocence. They are forced to resort to constant contradictions of their own past statements—and of one another—at every turn, because there is no other way to defend Trump’s actions.
Chief among the embarrassing discrepancies on display is how Trump’s backers approached the 1999 impeachment of President Bill Clinton compared with their handling of Trump’s trial today. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who may be the single most powerful enabler of Trump’s impunity with his assurances of being in lockstep with the White House, said this about the president during a closed-door testimony at Clinton’s Senate impeachment trial:
Time after time, he had the opportunity to choose the noble and honorable path. Time after time, he chose the path of lies and lawlessness—for the simple reason that he did not want to endanger his hold on public office. … The president would seek to win at any cost. If it meant lying to the American people. If it meant lying to his Cabinet. If it meant lying to a federal grand jury. If it meant tampering with witnesses and obstructing justice.
More than 20 years later McConnell—now holding far more political power—has predetermined the outcome of the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate, making clear that he would violate his oath of “impartial justice.” Trump stands accused of something far more serious than Clinton was: breaking a clear law rather than lying about an extramarital affair. Trump’s constant stream of lies doesn’t appear to matter to McConnell who, once upon a time, claimed to care about the “noble and honorable path.” (Trump has also lied about an extramarital affair outside of the articles of impeachment, but again, this does not seem to matter to McConnell.)
Another self-righteous Republican senator whose impeachment hypocrisy has been on full display is Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. During last week’s opening arguments, Democrats played a video of Graham in 1999 defining the Constitutional term “high crimes and misdemeanors,” as the basis for impeachment. “What’s a high crime?” asked Graham during Clinton’s impeachment. “It doesn’t even have to be a crime. It’s just when you start using your office and you’re acting in a way that hurts people, you’ve committed a high crime.”
Cut to today, when Graham appears to have forgotten his own definition of impeachment offenses, saying instead in a CNN interview in October that he would support impeachment only if it met a much higher standard. “Show me something that is a crime,” he said. “You could show me that Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo outside the phone call [between Trump and Ukraine’s president]. That would be very disturbing.”
Much to Graham’s dismay, the “quid pro quo” aspect of Trump’s wrongdoing became readily apparent by November. So he contradicted himself yet again, saying in December that he wasn’t as open-minded on impeachment, and in fact, “This thing will come to the Senate, and it will die quickly, and I will do everything I can to make it die quickly.” Graham then echoed McConnell, saying, “I am trying to give a pretty clear signal I have made up my mind. I’m not trying to pretend to be a fair juror here.”
Similar hypocrisy has emerged from Trump’s impeachment defense lawyers. During the Clinton impeachment, Alan Dershowitz said, “It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime. If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.” Now Dershowitz has changed his tune, arguing that Trump should not be removed from office because no crime has been committed.
Except, of course, the Government Accountability Office clearly stated that the White House broke the law in withholding aid from Ukraine against Congress’ wishes. Dershowitz embarrassed himself even further by disavowing his own Clinton-era arguments, saying that in 1998, he “had not done the extensive research on that issue because it was irrelevant to the Clinton case, and I was not fully aware of the compelling counterarguments.”
Trump’s defense lawyers have also been contradicting one another. Attorney Jay Sekulow argued on Saturday that there were no direct witnesses to Trump’s conduct on Ukraine, and therefore the president was innocent. Two days later, after former national security adviser John Bolton’s book was leaked, proving that Bolton was a direct witness, Dershowitz moved the goalpost, claiming that even if Bolton’s story was true, Trump’s conduct did not rise to the level of a crime.
As part of their defense, the president’s lawyers have also been shining a light on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, the targets of the investigation that Democrats have proven Trump was seeking from Ukraine in exchange for military aid. But for months, Trump’s defenders have been denying that Trump sought investigations into the Bidens (except when they’ve been busy saying he was actually doing so—as an avid anti-corruption crusader). Either Trump did not seek political leverage over Biden—which his lawyers say—or he did not—which his lawyers also say.
Republicans have repeatedly invoked the idea that they will not vote to remove Trump because the impeachment process is blatantly partisan, and they claim Democrats are targeting the president only because he is from their rival party. But when presented with witnesses who are predominantly Republican testifying (or in Bolton’s case, offering to testify) to Trump’s wrongdoing, Trump’s defenders again contradict their original claim, saying the witnesses are simply a “tool for the left.”
How to keep track of their constantly crisscrossing threads of logic? Republicans told us more than 20 years ago that Clinton deserved impeachment because a president didn’t have to commit a crime in order to be impeached. Today they have no such compunction to hold a president to such high standards.
They say there are no witnesses—even as they stonewall witnesses—and that if there were credible evidence, they might remove Trump. When witnesses and credible evidence emerge, they retort, even so, there has been no crime—and even if there has been a crime, there is no obligation to remove Trump. When crimes are proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, they argue that Trump’s targets deserved scrutiny, and therefore the crime was justified.
It is enough to confuse us all. Which is precisely the point. Trump’s fervent defenders are assuming that by sheer force of will and sanctimonious protests against a legitimate constitutional process, they will wear down the American people, who may only hear each argument in isolation. Taken as a whole, the Republican defense of Trump is so illogical, it is insulting to the public.
While the GOP may indeed preserve Trump’s tenure through their death grip on a slim Senate majority, history books will not be kind to the deceit they have displayed and the fools they have made of themselves.
Sonali Kolhatkar is a columnist for Truthdig. She also is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV (Dish Network, DirecTV,…