On Wednesday, the Senate conducted the first of two days of question-and-answer in the impeachment trial of Donald Trump, with the House managers and Trump’s legal team. Throughout the sessions, Trump’s team made it clear that any attempt to get at the truth of what happened would result in retaliation in the form of asking for an endless stream of witnesses, fighting every request in court, and holding up activity in the Senate “for a very long time.” Meanwhile, the House managers continued to swing for the fences with a number of stirring moments, sharp responses, and ringing calls for the Senate to do its job for the country.
From the start of this session, it was clear that Republicans were not taking the day seriously. Confident that enough of their members had fallen in line to suppress any possibility of subpoenaing a witness, the Republican side indulged in question after question written for no other reason than to promote conspiracy theories and smears by having Chief Justice John Roberts read them aloud. But even that wasn’t the worst damage done during the course of the evening.
As the night wore on, Trump legal team member Alan Dershowitz rose repeatedly to make it very clear what Republicans were authorizing: They were not just embracing foreign interference, but literally allowing Donald Trump to do anything in pursuit of reelection.
Much of the evening seemed to be the Ted Cruz Show. Having abandoned any pretense that they were seeking information, Republicans allowed the Texas assassin to have a hand in at least eight questions, all of them designed to spread ridiculous, corrosive smears against the whistleblower, Rep. Adam Schiff, and former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump’s defense team joined in eagerly, citing information from the worst of right-wing sites as “public information” to justify repeating claims. By the end of the night, Senate Republicans had endorsed every aspect of the conspiracy theory that Trump had tried to extort from Ukraine, and they had gone on to indict the whistleblower as having a hand in the “double bribery.”
Again and again, Republicans such as Cruz and Josh Hawley demonstrated that they were laughing up their sleeves, playing the “Roberts will repeat anything” game. That included using questions to make statements that Adam Schiff had collaborated with the whistleblower, long after Schiff had explained—again—that he had not met the whistleblower, that he did not know the whistleblower, and that no member of his staff was involved in preparing the whistleblower’s complaint. It didn’t matter, because for Cruz, getting out the facts was never the point of the exercise.
A special award goes to Kentucky Republican Rand Paul. At one point in the late afternoon, he managed to concoct a question so vile that Roberts refused to read it—the only time that happened, even though some of the questions from Cruz included recitations of multiple false charges.
Trump’s team leaned into the chance to spread unfounded information. Despite hours and days of chest-beating over “hearsay” or “second-hand information,” Trump’s attorneys relished every word of the beyond-Q conspiracies that came their way (including a rare appearance from benchwarmer Pam Bondi so bad that it’s already gathered more than two million views). And when not rolling in vile claims with absolutely no foundation, they used much of their time to directly threaten the Senate, stating again and again that any attempt to call a witness would be met with an unending string of requests, privilege claims, and court fights.
In the middle of the evening, Schiff made a major play and said that, to expedite the process, the House managers would agree to be bound by decisions from Roberts when it came to validating subpoenas, authorizing witnesses, and requesting documents. Citing the way that the House had taken as many as five depositions in a week, Schiff made it clear that there was no reason that a process involving witnesses had to be lengthy. But Trump’s legal team said that it would not agree. Instead, it continued its threat to respond to any call for witnesses by wrecking the Senate, drowning the trial in frivolous requests, and demanding a string of witnesses (including every member of the Biden family, every House manager, the whistleblower, people cited in right-wing media … an unending parade). And Republicans on both sides of the table pretended that this threat wasn’t simply an argument that any legal process can be crushed by the power of the White House.
But it wasn’t the cudgel of delay, or the giggling efforts of Cruz, Hawley, Paul, and others to place their hands under Robert’s robe and make him talk that did the most damage. The worst damage to the evening, the trial, and America’s future came from doddering Alan Dershowitz, who used the evening to expand his previous defense to a degree that didn’t just exonerate Trump in this case, but also exonerated him in any possible case.
In a pair of appearances, Dershowitz expanded on his theory that abuse of power isn’t a permissible cause for impeachment. Deliberately and directly contradicting the historical sources he cited, Dershowitz called every constitutional expert in America a “never Trumper” for daring to disagree with him. And while claiming to be the only reasonable man in the country, he said he didn’t stand alone … because he had found a single attorney in 1867 whose views were similar. And 1867 is closer to when the Constitution was written, so that view wins. If you ignore all the people involved in the writing of it.
Then, having literally made up dictionary entries to support his redefinition of legal terms, Dershowitz went not just all-in, but completely overboard. According to Trump’s finest legal mind, there is nothing that Trump can’t do in pursuit of reelection. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. So long as Trump believes that his reelection would be good for the nation, he can extort foreign governments for made-up dirt. He can directly threaten an ally. There is no limit.
Along the way, Dershowitz also argued that there is absolutely nothing wrong with launching an investigation into a political opponent. In fact, he asserted that a run for office itself can be justification for investigating an opponent. He directly embraced the idea that a president launching investigations of his political opponents using domestic or foreign sources wasn’t just fine; it was desirable. He argued that daring to run against Trump painted a target on anyone’s back, and that Trump had all the power he needed to shoot at it.
If there was any doubt going into the evening, Dershowitz removed it: voting to acquit Trump means voting not just to dismiss this charge, but to embrace the idea that Trump trumps the law. He didn’t hint that Trump could do anything he wanted in pursuit of reelection; that was the core theme of his whole presentation. That was the point. That was what he said.
The Senate listened to a presentation from Trump’s legal team according to which there is nothing Trump can do in pursuit of reelection that isn’t justified. There is no limit to how Trump can use his power to persecute political opponents. According to the theory that was put forward on the floor of the Senate, Trump could simply lock up every Democratic opponent, or suspend elections indefinitely, and that would be just fine—not only an impeachable offense, but a good thing.
Republicans are going to vote for that. Republicans are going to press the button on not just a step toward autocracy, but a full-on embrace of it. They’re going to do it with a smile.