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Reality TV and Reality Collide

The House impeachment inquiry makes its much ballyhooed debut on live television today, which puts in a wistfully nostalgic mood. It brings back vivid memories of the last two times the Congress tried to impeach a sitting president, and a jarring realization about how things change over time.
Way back in our youth the Watergate hearings were the top-rated show on television, and we watched with precociously rapt attention as the complex plot culminated with President Richard Nixon’s resignation and final helicopter flight from the White House. Even in the desultory aftermath of the Vietnam war and the emerging stagflation economy it was a very big deal, and with everything else on television at the time, it was such an epic morality play that we old folks talk about it to this day.
By the time President Bill Clinton was being impeached for lying under oath about a tawdry relationship with a White House intern during a civil lawsuit regarding a youth former Arkansas state employee, which was discovered by a special prosecutor charged with investigating a fail real estate scheme, things had noticeably changed. There weren’t any wars and the economy was growing without inflation, a post-sexual revolution country didn’t much care what its president was doing in his free time, and without any of the femmes fatales being questioned live on television the show couldn’t compete with all the other channels suddenly available on cable. In one of television’s greatest anticlimaxes the show ended with Clinton’s acquittal by a majority Democratic Senate, and no one on either of the side of the question at the time talks about much it now.
This time around things have changed even more noticeably. The nation’s notions of sexual propriety have reached a point where a thrice-married and boastful philanderer is the Republican president and hero of the evangelical right, and its standards for the proper exercise of presidential power have been similarly degraded. There are an exponentially greater number of viewing and reading options now, the impeachment hearings are boringly headed to a obviously predetermined and desultory-for-both-sides conclusion, and one likely outcome is that most Americans won’t much care how it comes out.
If you haven’t been slogging through the byzantine plot in the leaked or off-the-record reports in the print and electronic media, the gist of it is that several high-level Foreign Service and military officials have testified under oath to Congress that President Donald Trump’s White House withheld military and other aid to Ukraine unless it agreed to announce investigations into Trump’s past and potential future Democratic rivals. The White House itself released a rough transcript of a phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president that seems to back up the charges, the White House chief of staff defiantly told a press gathering to “Get over it, we do it all the time,” and for now the Republicans are trying their best to come up with a better defense.
The Republicans protested when the witnesses testified in closed hearings, but their damning testimony has since been released, and we expect they’ll be telegenic and appealing characters when live on television. On other channels you can hear that they’re “deep state” conspirators involved in a coup d’tat against a duly elected president, and some Republicans will be saying the same on the hated “fake news” networks, but it’s not a convincing plot line, even by modern television standards. All but one of the witnesses for the prosecution all have impeccable records of public service, no apparent reason to lie, and their stories all line up. Several are Trump appointees, or appointees of his appointees, and the other witness is a dilettante diplomat who was appointed Ambassador to the European Union after bundling millions to Trump’s campaign and another million to Trump’s inaugural ball but has recently amended his testimony to line up with the others.
So far impeachment is polling pretty well, given the fractured media markets and bipartisan climate, and we expect that even low-rated televised hearings will nudge up the antipathy to Trump. Potential future guest stars include Trump’s personal attorney, whose peripatetic freelance foreign policy are currently under investigation by Trump’s own Justice Department, and Trump’s former national security advisor, who resigned over differences o such matters as our foreign policy with Ukraine, which would be widely watched.
Barring some deus ex machina plot twist in this improbable reality show, a nearly unanimous majority of the Democrats who control the House majority and perhaps even a few Republicans will almost certainly impeach Trump. For now it’s likely that a majority-Republican Senate won’t vote to remove Trump from office, but that might be slightly less likely with each passing day of televised testimony from believable witnesses about an arguably impeachable abuse of presidential power.
Back in our surly and cynical youth many of the Republicans used to care about that sort of thing, and even in our middle age there were some damned Democrats who were embarrassed by an older man using his presidential power to indulge in a tawdry relationship with an much younger intern, even if they thought lying about it under oath wasn’t necessarily an impeachable offense. These days there are so many channels to choose from, and all of the standards seem to have been lowered across the political divide, and much of the country probably won’t care how it turns out.
Even so, we’ll be “binge watching.”

— Bud Norman

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Our State of Emergency

Load your guns, hide the children, and stock up on cigarettes and beer and other essentials, as we expect America will be in a state of emergency today. So far as we can tell the only emergency is that a spending ball passed by Congress to keep the government open didn’t give President Donald the money he wanted to build a big beautiful wall along the entire southern, but one can never be too sure.
If Trump does make good on his threat to declare a national emergency and assume emergency powers to re-appropriate federal funds, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Trump promised him, that will be cause for alarm. Trump’s grab of newfound presidential powers will likely be quickly blocked by both the courts and Congress, as well a small amount of principled conservative opposition and overwhelming public onion, but the fact that it’s come to this is quite scary.
This whole big beautiful border wall deal has been a disaster from the outset, as far as we’re concerned. Trump’s fanciful promise that he not only build but have Mexico pay for it somehow helped him win the Republican nomination, and didn’t keep him from winning the Electoral College vote, but it’s been a burden to him ever since. Mexico declined to pay for the wall, unsurprisingly enough, and so did two years of Republican majorities in Congress, with the filibuster rules and only a slight Republican edge having something to do with it, and Trump should have known he wouldn’t fare any better with a huge Democratic majority installed in the house after the mid-term elections. Trump tried to force the Democrats to cough up the money with a partial government shutdown, but by the time that ended with Trump’s poll numbers plummeting he had capitulated on a short-term fix. The spending bill which passed both chambers on Thursday keeps the government open all the way to September and provides less funding for a border wall than the deal that Trump passed up prior to the shutdown, and now he’s left with declaring a national emergency.
The same National Emergency Act that Trump cites for his authority specifically allows Congress to block it, and given the bipartisan support for the spending bill Congress seems likely to do so. The Constitution still supersedes the National Emergency Act, as well, and given how clearly that document says spending power is the sole province of Congress the Courts are likely to take a dim view of it as well. Among the litigants will be several states and many private landowners and other parties that conservatives have previously championed, and they’ll be making constitutional arguments about unconstrained presidential power that conservatives fervently believed in as recently as the administration of President Barack Obama, and everyone from the moderate to loony left is united in its opposition. Trump’s wall continues to poll badly, although his still-underwater approval rating ticked up slightly after he capitulated to the Democrats to fully re-open the government, and we expect his opponents on all fronts will seize the public relations advantage.
Trump relies on that stubborn 30 percent or so the population the somehow believes in his infallibility, however, and is thus obliged to heed their raucous rally cries of “Build that wall!” He’d always follow that up asking who was go to pay for it, and the rally crowds would cry “Mexico,” which has been largely forgiven and forgotten, but he has a huckster’s sense can’t get away without building a big beautiful border wall and having somebody pay for it. Already such a staunch defender as nutcase provocateur Ann Coulter, author of “In Trump We Trust: E Pluribus Awesome,” is “tweeting” that Trump’s emergency declaration is an inevitable loser and that his signing of the spending bill means that her erstwhile hero was a surrender to “open borders.” Sean Hannity and “Judge” Jeanine Pirro and other more loyal media apologists will come up with some reason that Trump is clearly winning, but lately talk radio show callers have been restless.
Another favorite line at the Trump rallies was “at least he fights,” and the loyalists can take some comfort in knowing that at least that’s true. Trump picks fights with congressional back-benchers and B-list celebrities, gives hell to those snowflake lefties, flouts the political establishment and intellectual traditions of the Republican party and traditional conservatism, daily denies objective facts he’d rather not hear, with a habit o skirting up against the most generous edges of the law, and no matter how pointless it all ultimately proves the fans seem to love the spectacle.

— Bud Norman