Remember that sultry July day during the 2016 campaign when Donald Trump went in front of the television cameras and asked the Russian government to intervene in the looming presidential election on his behalf? “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails [by Hillary Clinton] that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” We now know, thanks to the Mueller report, that Moscow responded by hacking Hillary Clinton’s server that very day. We also know that the Mueller report itself concluded, after exhaustive examination, that there was no prosecutable evidence of a “conspiracy” between Trump and the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. Yet we saw one in broad daylight.
This has long been the paradox of this administration. We tend to assume that nefarious activities of an impeachable variety will always be conducted away from the glare of the media, hidden from the public record, scrubbed of incriminating information. We always assume that what lies under the rock is always more damning than what lies basking on top of it. And we do so for a simple reason. Most criminals assume they might be caught, and take care to avoid it. Nixon ordered the break-in and the cover-up and tried to keep it all on the down low, where indeed it might have stayed if he hadn’t taped all his incriminating conversations.
Trump is different. He proudly released a “transcript” of a “perfect” phone call that proved a direct attempt to leverage pending U.S. military aid in order to get the Ukrainian government to investigate one of his likeliest opponents in the 2020 campaign, Joe Biden. In the texts of U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker to European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland, Ukrainian administration staff, and former Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor at the time:
“Most impt. is for Zelensky to say he will help investigation.”
“Heard from White House — assuming president Z convinces trump he will investigate/ ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
“I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
July 21 has my favorite text:
Bill Taylor: Gordon, one thing Kurt and I talked about yesterday … was [the] point that president Zelensky is sensitive to Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic/re-election politics.”
Proof of an impeachable crime does not get clearer than that.
Trump then allowed a devastating whistle-blower complaint to be made public, yet another damning indictment of illegality and borderline treason. And then yesterday, the president, on his way to a helicopter, smeared a whole lot of butter icing on the top of the impeachment cake.
First, he reiterated his advice to President Zelensky of Ukraine that he should open an investigation into Hunter Biden’s business ventures in Ukraine. Then, not content with bragging about one impeachable crime, he gave notice that he was perfectly prepared to commit another. The amuse-bouche: “I have a lot of options on China, but if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.” The entrée: “Likewise, China should start an investigation into the Bidens. Because what happened in China is almost as bad a what happened in Ukraine.” He went further: “I don’t think president Xi likes being under that kind of scrutiny.” For good measure, Trump knows that there is no such thing as a fair investigation by a totalitarian state, currently involved in the reeducation or eradication of its Muslim Uighur minority and shooting at protesters in the streets of Hong Kong.
And so the president has clearly committed two high crimes: He has used his position as president to solicit help from two foreign governments, one a Communist dictatorship, in fighting the next presidential election, just as he did in July 2016 with Russia, but this time with China and Ukraine. And yes, these are clear, unequivocal crimes. The chair of the Federal Election Committee, Ellen Weintraub, tweeted the bleeding obvious yesterday: “Let me make something 100% clear to the America public and anyone running for public office: It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. This is not a novel concept.” Indeed it isn’t. Far from faithfully executing the laws, this president is openly breaking them — in full view of the world, and in flagrant violation of his oath of office.
It is as if Nixon held a press conference and began it by saying, “Yes, I’m a crook. And the American people deserve to know it. But McGovern would have been a terrible president and so it was entirely worthwhile. Sure, I committed a high crime in tampering with the last election. But sometimes high crimes are necessary to save the country from the Democrats.” Nixon, for all his profound flaws, would never have said such a thing. His cover-up was, in a way, a tribute to the rule of law the way hypocrisy is often a tribute to virtue. He had some reverence for the Constitution, even as he betrayed it. He had some sense of responsibility for the wider system of government, and for his own political party, even as he struggled to save himself. Nixon committed high crimes — but, unlike Trump, he didn’t celebrate or publicize them or declare them legal and simply dare the body politic to take him down.
And there is no Paul Ryan–like defense that Trump didn’t know about the illegality of such actions. In Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano’s words, “For heaven’s sake, Trump was just investigated by Mueller for two-and-a-half tumultuous years for allegedly bringing the Russian government into the 2016 election and now he has attempted in one phone call to bring the Ukrainian government into the 2020 election!” Worse, having been found out on the Ukraine call, he went ahead and urged China to investigate as well! This is repeated, reckless, deliberate breaking of the law and expressed contempt for it.
Why would a president say such things? And in public? My view, for what it’s worth, is that Trump’s pathological narcissism overrides reality on a minute-by-minute basis, and that because of this, the very idea of the rule of law, which makes no distinction between the really stable geniuses and everybody else, is impossible for Trump to understand. It’s designed as a neutral check on any individual’s desire to do whatever he wants — and a “neutral check” is, quite simply, beyond Trump’s comprehension. Looking at his long and abysmal business career, the rule of law was always, always an object of scorn, something only suckers cared about and lawyers were paid to circumvent. For Trump, the law is something to break, avoid or pay off. And as president, he clearly believes he is above it.
But narcissism is no defense. Delusional mania and paranoia are no defenses either. This is an open assault on the integrity of U.S. elections and the rule of law by the president himself. We need no more investigations or even hearings. We already have irrefutable proof. The suspect has confessed. Some detail and background might be discovered by interviewing witnesses, but the core case is in our hands. An attempt to get a foreign power to intervene in an internal election process is definitionally an impeachable offense. It was precisely the fear of foreign interference that prompted much of the founders’ discussion of impeachment.
Draw up the articles of impeachment, keep them short and focused on unchallengeable evidence in the Ukraine, and now China cases. Don’t let Trump deploy a barrage of distractions or misdirections. Don’t let the evidence grow cold. Hold a vote as soon as possible. This man is a menace to the core integrity of our republic and Constitution. He must be removed before the damage is incalculable.
How to Get Diversity Without Affirmative Action
I was downcast but not surprised this week by a federal judge’s upholding of Harvard’s affirmative action policy as constitutional, even though that policy is designed to ensure that large numbers of highly qualified students are denied entry mostly because they are Asian-American. The case continues on appeal, of course, and it may well be that the judge is correct under the current, contested Supreme Court doctrine. But I was struck by this passage in the judge’s ruling:
For purposes of this case, at least for now, ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race conscious admissions. The students who are admitted to Harvard and choose to attend will live and learn surrounded by all sorts of people, with all sorts of experiences, beliefs and talents. They will have the opportunity to know and understand one another beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences. It is this, at Harvard and elsewhere that will move us, one day, to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important, but we are not there yet.
And how I wish this were true. How wonderful it would be if Harvard’s goal in these discriminatory practices were to get Harvard students to think “beyond race” and to see one another as unique individuals. It would still be a contradiction, of course — to combat racial discrimination, you need to practice racial discrimination — but as a temporary measure, you can justify it if the goal is eventual color-blindness in admissions. That’s the point of the judge’s terms — “at least for now,” “one day,” “we are not there yet.” And as law professor Melissa Murray notes, that’s just an update on Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 view that the policy is only constitutional if it is temporary: “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” So in nine years we can get rid of this bias?
Except, if Harvard has its way, we won’t. Increasingly, the popular rationale for the discrimination is as Murray described it in the New York Times this week, “an appropriate remedy for longtime systemic, state-sanctioned oppression.” Harvard has long since stopped pretending — at least when it doesn’t have to defend its practices in court — that it believes in bringing about a society “beyond race.” In the last decade, the emphasis is on racial oppression as a permanent structural force built into America’s DNA. Affirmative action is thereby a form of open-ended resistance to “white supremacy.” All students, far from getting beyond race, are required to be constantly conscious of it even in a casual conversation. Diversity programs are increasingly not about getting past race; they are about insisting on its eternal centrality to everything in America.
Perhaps the discrimination could still be justified by the legacy of an overwhelmingly white student body for a very long time, an attempt to level the playing field retroactively so that non-white minorities can do better. Fine. So why go after Asian-Americans — a non-white minority — who have nothing whatsoever to do with that? Why punish one minority group in order to protect others? Many Asian-American students are children of immigrants, without inherited wealth or privilege, and, as an ethnic group, were subject to brutal discrimination in this country for centuries. Japanese-Americans were actually locked up in internment camps in living memory. And they’re the ones you’re discriminating against for the purpose of racial justice?
An alternative option for expanding racial diversity is sitting in plain sight though. It wouldn’t rest on a neo-Marxist view of America; nor be a paradoxical liberal attempt to create a temporary exception for color-blindness in order to get to color-blindness in the future. That option is simply to end policies that rig the admissions process to benefit the super-rich and super-privileged. I’m talking about legacy admissions.
Yes, almost all of these students are white, but the criterion for choosing not to admit them is not their race, but simple fairness. No one should get an unearned advantage, by race or by class and connections and heredity. And one of the benefits of subjecting Harvard to discovery in this trial was the revelation that a whopping 43 percent of white students at Harvard are legacy and special admissions, i.e. there because they’re athletes, legacies, Dean’s List, or children of faculty. Of those, 70 percent would not be there on merit alone.
If you ended this affirmative action for the super-rich and connected, you’d free up almost a full third of admissions. It’s win-win! More fairness and more racial balance. And there are no constitutional issues involved in Harvard actually using academic merit as the core criterion for admission. What better way to attack “white supremacy” than ending a program that gives extra advantages to the already privileged and not-so-smart?
What about it, Harvard? Time to check your own privilege, methinks, before you tell anyone else to check theirs.
A Living Faith
A staggering thing happened in a court this week. The brother of Botham Jean, the man shot dead in his own apartment by a police officer, Amber Guyger, had an opportunity for a victim statement before the sentencing. I can’t adequately describe it — but check it out if you missed it:
Brandt Jean slowly and carefully explained how he forgave Guyger for murdering his brother. More than that, he said he cared about her. And then he asked the judge if he could leave the witness stand and hug the woman. And they embraced, as she sobbed. He said he hoped that she would now give her life to Christ, as he had: “I forgive you. Go to God … I don’t even want you to go to jail because that’s what Botham would want.”
Just to add to the tear-drenched courtroom, the judge herself, an African-American woman, came down to join the hugging. I wasn’t there and didn’t follow the trial, so it’s hard to understand why this scene became so intense. But I found it hard to watch without tears coming to my eyes as well. It’s easy to talk about Christianity; it’s incredibly hard to live it. Christ’s demands of us are extreme. And in our discussions of Christianity in America, a topic that tends to get skipped over a lot is how important African-Americans are in keeping the faith alive. African-Americans are more likely to self-identify as Christians than whites or Latinos, and 14 percent of them are evangelical. These men and women are the Christians least susceptible to Trump’s snake-oil, unlike the vast majority of their white fellow believers.
To be honest, I was terrified the jury might not convict on a clear murder charge, which would have been a travesty. I am somewhat disappointed that the sentencing was only ten years, with parole — at the low end of the guidelines. And the light sentencing — especially compared with some appallingly long sentences for African-Americans who have committed far, far less grave crimes — understandably set some people off. “I’m not moved by the white establishment making a genre of Black people hugging white people who have been violent against us. If there were genuine belief in agape love, racial oppression wouldn’t exist & you wouldn’t send police with snipers when we protest it,” Bree Newsome Bass tweeted.
Adam Serwer was a little more restrained: “We would be living in a very different world if many of the people who exult in black displays of forgiveness reciprocated that grace and mercy but that’s not reflected at all in our criminal justice policy, and it makes you question what they really find compelling about it.” Jemele Hill: “How Botham Jean’s brother chooses to grieve is his business. He’s entitled to that. But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable. Keep in mind this convicted murderer is the same one who laughed about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and killing ppl on sight.”
I don’t begrudge these feelings given the way our criminal-justice system is far too often indifferent to the lives of black men and women. But grace is grace. “Systems” can never exhibit it. Only people can. And when grace breaks out, it’s always in a personal human context. When forgiveness happens, it is the choice of a human soul, regardless of that person’s place in an intersectional hierarchy.
I also don’t think the “white establishment” was “exulting” in this, or that people moved by it have some kind of ulterior motive. I think many white and black people were simply overcome and in awe of Brandt Jean’s grace and faith. There is no need to politicize it, or resent it. There is no need to write, as Roxane Gay did, that “the fetishization of forgiveness is exhausting.” If you can only see systems of oppression and not the contingent, unique human beings who live on this planet, and every day redeem it somewhere, you’re missing something important: the kind of mutual forgiveness we desperately need in this country, if we are ever to repair the widening breach.
See you next Friday.