There was a bleak symmetry to the momentous events of this week.
On Wednesday, during the first day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, Bill Taylor and George Kent, two State Department officials of impeccable credentials, explained how the president used foreign aid and the promise of a White House meeting to try to extort a vulnerable ally for help with his reelection.
Withholding security assistance from Ukraine “for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” said Taylor, America’s top diplomat in that country. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.” The hearing made it clear that Trump subverted foreign policy in order to cheat in the 2020 campaign.
Wednesday was also the day of closing arguments in the trial of Roger Stone, the longtime Trump associate charged with making false statements to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice in Congress’ investigation into Russian election interference.
During the trial, former Trump campaign chief executive Steve Bannon testified that he regarded Stone as the campaign’s “access point” to WikiLeaks, which published thousands of Democratic National Committee emails that were hacked by Russia. Former Trump campaign staffer Rick Gates testified that Trump spoke directly to Stone about WikiLeaks’ plans. Trump, in written testimony to special counsel Robert Mueller, said he remembered no such conversation. Stone seems to have exaggerated his WikiLeaks’ connections, but the trial made it clear that the Trump campaign tried hard to take advantage of Russian cybercrimes in the 2016 election, and that Trump lied about it.
After the impeachment hearing, some in the media appeared to yawn. Two Reuters reporters pronounced the proceedings “consequential, but dull,” writing, “Unlike the best reality TV shows — not to mention the Trump presidency itself — fireworks and explosive moments were scarce.” An NBC News analysis concluded that the hearing “felt more like the dress rehearsal for a serious one-act play than the opening night of a hit Broadway musical.”
It’s certainly true that there were few new revelations Wednesday, since transcripts of the witnesses’ closed-door testimony had already been released. But if the facts at hand have not shaken the country to its core, that’s not the fault of Democrats on the Intelligence Committee. The responsibility lies with us all for letting this lawless, kleptocratic presidency become normalized.
Like addicts to the world’s most unpleasant drug, our political class seems to require ever-greater jolts to feel anything at all. A month ago, some Republican senators were briefly roused from their submissive torpor by Trump’s cavalier decision to greenlight a Turkish attack on America’s Kurdish allies in Syria. Lindsey Graham, usually an obsequious Trump lackey, said that if the president didn’t change course, he was prepared to become Trump’s “worst nightmare.”
Trump did not change course on protecting the Kurds, and Wednesday he licked the boots of Turkey’s dictatorial president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during an Oval Office meeting. But rather than rebelling, Graham fell in line. After the meeting, as if reveling in his own abasement, he decided to side with Erdogan and block a congressional resolution recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian genocide, a mass atrocity that Turkey furiously denies.
So it’s true: The Trumpian treachery revealed at the hearing Wednesday will not move immovable Republicans. Last month Graham told Axios that there were circumstances in which he might support impeachment. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing,” he said. Now that there is abundant evidence of just such a quid pro quo, Graham has moved the goal posts, saying that the inquiry is “invalid” unless the whistleblower who revealed Trump’s Ukraine scheme is outed.
But it is a monumental mistake to allow people who will accept anything from Trump to set our standards for acceptable public behavior. By any normal metric, this week’s news — the impeachment hearing, the Stone trial, the mortifying Erdogan meeting, not to mention new revelations of the senior Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s white nationalism — was sensational and historic. The fact that Republicans are insisting otherwise is a sign of the depths of our political crisis. Each one of us must choose whether to treat their mulish disloyalty to their fellow citizens as a given, worthy only of shrugs, or as a shocking affront that demands redoubled political action.
Faced with evidence of Trump’s crimes, a significant part of the right is trying to convince Americans that the president has been set up by Jewish philanthropist George Soros. The lurid McCarthyite fantasy that Soros controls U.S. diplomats has been a theme in this scandal from the beginning — Rudy Giuliani has pushed the idea repeatedly.
Now the claims are getting louder. On Wednesday night Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, two attorneys who’ve served as conduits between Giuliani and corrupt Ukrainian interests, appeared on Lou Dobbs’ Fox Business show, where diGenova said, “There’s no doubt that George Soros controls a very large part of the career foreign service of the United States State Department.” On Thursday, the white nationalist Rep. Steve King tweeted out a picture of Soros’ son, claiming, absurdly, that he was the whistleblower. (King later deleted it.)
These are the sort of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that deform public life in squalid second-rate oligarchies like Russia and Hungary. In three short years, Republicans have allowed our country to sink to that level — indeed, to sink below it, since foreign authoritarians find it easy to manipulate our president, and scarcely seem to regard him as their equal.
There is nothing Democrats can do to make their Republican colleagues side with upstanding patriots like Taylor and Kent — who embody the virtues conservatives once venerated — over their dear leader and the mad rantings of his worshippers. All they can do is make plain the choice America faces between hewing to ideals that everyone in public life once at least pretended to revere, or consenting to their defilement. Either Americans will reclaim their birthright and become a liberal democracy again, or not. It’s up to all of us to decide how much we care about being entertained in the process.
Michelle Goldberg is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.