Courage Under Trump
(Francis) Rooney knew the trap was being laid, but he didn’t bother avoiding it. On Friday, October 18, the congressman appeared on CNN and said there was “clear” evidence of a quid pro quo based on acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney’s own description of events. Asked whether he was ruling out voting for impeachment, Rooney replied, “I don’t think you can rule anything out until you know all the facts.” He also added, “I’m very mindful of the fact that back during Watergate everybody said, ‘Oh, it’s a witch hunt to get Nixon.’ Turns out it wasn’t a witch hunt. It was absolutely correct.”
Rooney’s remarks — in particular, his unsolicited comparison of Trump to Nixon — left his colleagues slack-jawed. House Republicans, having received hair-on-fire emails from staffers alerting them to the comments, tip-toed through the Capitol to avoid reporters asking for comment. Video of the little-known congressman’s interview rocketed around Twitter and turned official Washington on its head for a matter of hours, fueling immediate speculation that a broader revolt might be brewing. Here, at last, was a Republican lawmaker openly entertaining the prospect of impeaching a Republican president.
And sure enough, as though a switch had been flipped, Rooney found himself under siege.
“The blowback from the people in Southwest Florida was something. I mean, I had people down here in the local Republican leadership mad at me, yelling at me, telling me nothing should happen to make me waver in my support of Donald Trump. Nothing,” he recalls in an interview. “Now, I’m pretty immune to pressure. I’ve got a great company, a great family, I’ve done some wonderful things in my life. So, the fact that I got criticized by some local Republican officials doesn’t bother me one bit. But still … ”
Rooney’s voice trails off. The intensity of that criticism — and the threats on his career, made implicit and explicit by Florida Republicans in the hours after his CNN appearance — left him with an inescapable conclusion: There would be no coming back to Congress. He had mulled retirement in the months prior, but now the decision was being made for him. The very next day, appearing on Fox News, Rooney announced he would not seek reelection in 2020.
It hardly could have played better for Trump. The headlines wrote themselves. As Rolling Stone declared, “GOP Congressman Open to Impeachment on Friday, Retires on Saturday.”
The implication was clear: Any Republican who so much as flirted with impeachment would no longer have a home in the party.
-Tim Alberta, “Who Will Betray Trump?” Politico Magazine, November 8, 2019.
I was busy at work, listening online to the Impeachment hearing when I heard Republican Representative Will Hurd began to speak. Hurd is a moderate that represents one of the few districts that voted for him and also Hillary Clinton. Hurd is retiring at the end of this term.
He talks about the president’s actions and he expresses disgust at what the president did. I kept hoping that he would go all the way and say that he would say that the President must be impeached. But Hurd got up to the edge and then pulled back. He said what Trump did was bad, but not impeachable.
It was sad to hear this. You have to think that Hurd knows what Trump did was impeachable. He probably doesn’t think highly of the President. He isn’t up for re-election. So why can’t he say something as simple as saying the President did something that was impeachable?
All you have to do is read the Tim Alberta story I highlighted from above to tell you why. The Trumpified GOP operates like Soviet-era Czechoslovakia or the East German Stasi. You must watch what you say, because someone, somewhere is watching.
Trump wants no criticism at all. When Michigan Representative Justin Amash thought there was enough to impeach the President in the aftermath of the Mueller Report, he was basically driven from the GOP.
A number of legislators have decided that if they keep their heads down and don’t make waves, they will be safe. If they just focus on whatever bills need to be passed, they could get out of this alive.
The problem with this is that at some point, events will conspire to make a choice; follow Trump or be banished. As poet Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Bullies draw their power from fear. They don’t like to be questioned or challenged, so they scare people into doing what they want. They strike fear by showing what happens to people who challenge them. The goal is to subjugate people into compliance. This is what is happening to Republican legislators on Capitol Hill. If any legislator is even thinking of saying something bad about Trump, they will face the consequences.
What is happening here is something that you might find in authoritarian regimes. Martin Longman wrote in the Washington Monthly in 2017 about how people can be beaten to submission by using an example from the Nazi regime:
Adolf Eichmann organized a meeting on the behalf of Reinhard Heydrich that included representatives from various ministries and branches of the military and police. The major decisions had already been made at the highest level, but there was some pretense of debate about what to do with the Jewish population in the occupied areas of the Third Reich.
Heydrich knew that there would be opposition to what he was going to propose so he walked them slowly up to the real news. He didn’t just come out and say that they had built gas chambers and crematoriums. He walked them through all the logistical problems with trying to feed and house so many Jewish prisoners. He explained why their suggestions were impractical for one reason or another. And only after he’d gotten a lot of input and dismissed a lot of ideas did he and Eichmann spring the big news that there would be a highly mechanized program of complete annihilation.
In the movie, probably more than half of the participants were untroubled by this, although they were at least a bit surprised. But others who would have clearly objected in strong moral language at the beginning of the meeting had been beaten down by the time the announcement was made. Overall, what won the day is that no one present was willing to argue that any Jews should be allowed to live in a future Reich. They all agreed that they must be removed, only differing on the timeline and whether it could be done in the near term without undermining the war effort. It didn’t hurt that Heydrich was considered powerful and dangerous enough that no one wanted to cross him.
In the end, there was a consensus built that there would be a Final Solution, or a Holocaust.
I don’t use this to say that Trump is Hitler. I am using to share that in authoritarian societies, one of the ways people can be made to do things they would have never thought of doing. And right now the Republicans on Capitol Hill is running like an authoritarian regime.
For someone like myself, it has been disheartening to see one legislator after another have to bow to this man who has no honor. But, it is understandable; the results of standing up to Trump can mean not simply losing your seat, but it might mean losing any hope of running for anything ever again. It might also mean not getting a job at a think tank or other agency. To stand up to Trump means you could see yourself be blacklisted from the party.
To be quite honest, I don’t know if I could stand up to Trump if I was a Congressman. I don’t know if I could deal with losing any future prospects in politics. I wonder if I could stand the repetitive barrage of verbal garbage thrown at you so much that I would just give in. You have to be brave in order to face what you know is coming for you.
So, I get why the Will Hurds of the world are scared because I would be too.
But even though I don’t know if I could do it, even though I know Will Hurd can’t do it, the times still demand for lawmakers to stand up and call a spade a spade. The times don’t give a damn if you are afraid.
What the President did in holding up needed aid to Ukraine was to subvert American foreign policy in order to support his own interests. He created a shadow foreign policy team to go around the normal channels all so he could damage a potential rival in the 2020 election. He is trying to manipulate the outcome of the 2020 election before any vote has been cast.
If we can’t hold the President accountable on this matter, he will do something even grander. If we can’t stop him from getting a second term, he will do whatever he wants. There is no bottom to his wants, and he will do whatever he can do to ensure he stays in power. His comment about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue in New York is not a joke.
If Representatives and Senators allow themselves to spout lies like saying Ukraine was the one behind election shenanigans in 2016, lies they know aren’t true, they aren’t victims…they are now complicit. That means people like Elise Stefanik, a relative moderate who decided to go full MAGA, can’t say they had to do this to stay alive. Because as hard as it is to stand up to the prevailing winds, and as hard as it is to put your entire political future at risk, and as much as it means the loss of friends, legislators must speak for one reason: democracy is at stake. To make excuses, no matter how understandable or just follow along will not protect you when there is a reckoning — and there will be a reckoning at some point. It won’t be today or tomorrow, but you will be held accountable for how you did or didn’t uphold the constitution.
So to the Francis Rooneys, Will Hurds and even Elise Stefaniks of the world, I know that challenging Trump and his enablers is scary and difficult. I get it. I really do. But if you hang back, keep your head down or join in you need to know this: you will be an accomplice to the crimes of President Trump. Your fear will not protect you.