President Donald Trump says the whistle-blower whose complaint triggered impeachment hearings is treasonous. So is Adam Schiff, chair of the committee investigating the complaint. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hates America because she is pushing ahead with impeachment.
The president seems determined to prove Samuel Johnson’s adage that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
Trump’s claim about treason is self-evidently untrue. Treason is the only crime in the Constitution and the requirements are very specific – levying war against the country or giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The whistleblower, Schiff and Pelosi did none of those things. They did the opposite.
The only way Trump can reach his conclusion is to define patriotism as synonymous with fealty and to equate the welfare of the presidency and the country with the welfare of the one man he cares about.
That kind of reasoning worked for monarchs, but it is antithetical to the president of a republic. When Pelosi reminded Americans recently about Benjamin Franklin’s famous words outside the constitutional convention, she was making an important point.
“Well Doctor,” a woman asked Franklin, “what have we got, a republic or a monarchy.” Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.”
It’s easy to forget 232 years later that the Founding Fathers were deeply worried about a president who claimed the powers of a king because they had just thrown off a king.
Trump claims the powers of a monarch. He argues the House impeachment process is illegitimate and a witch-hunt. His lawyers argue in court that neither he nor his aides nor his former aides can be required to answer to Congress. They also argue he enjoys “temporary presidential immunity” from investigations and prosecution, even if he were to murder someone on Fifth Avenue.
Stars and Stripes
The stars and stripes decorate the cover of the forthcoming fall issue of GJR. It is an issue that celebrates the patriotic work of the Stars and Stripes news organization, from its birth in southern Missouri during the Civil War, to Bill Mauldin’s celebration of Willie and Joe in World War II, to its robust coverage today of the world-wide impact of American power.
The history of the Stars and Stripes is an apt reminder that no one party, or ideology or leader has a monopoly on patriotism. Too often conservatives, hardhats and Trumpists have defined patriotism as “love it or leave it.” Too often liberals have looked at our nation’s sins – from slavery to sexism to unprincipled foreign wars – and stood stone silent during the National Anthem.
We should remember what the 19th century French observer Alexis de Tocqueville said: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.”
Great patriots aren’t just Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. They include the great abolitionists, suffragettes and anti-war leaders who sought to make a more perfect union. They include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Betty Friedan. All put the advancement of their fellow citizens ahead of their self-interest.
Trump’s call to the president of the Ukraine is devoid of patriotism. It is entirely self-interested.
Trump pressured the Ukrainian president to investigate the Democratic presidential candidate he was most worried about, former Vice President Joe Biden. And Trump withheld nearly $400 million in military aid the Ukrainians needed to defend themselves against Vladimir Putin, whose irregulars are fighting a war in the eastern part of the country.
So Trump was withholding taxpayer money appropriated by Congress for national security and holding it over the head of a foreign leader to get dirt on his political opponent. It’s an echo of 2016 when Trump famously asked, “Russia, if you’re listening” and his son exclaimed “I love it” at the prospect of getting dirt from Russia at Trump Tower. Asking foreign governments to help in an election seems like a family trait.
In this “perfect” call to the Ukrainian president, Trump put it this way: “I would like you to do us a favor though……Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me.”
Worse than Nixon
This is worse than former President Richard Nixon, in some ways. At least Nixon didn’t personally order the burglars to the Watergate and his lieutenants used campaign funds to pay for the black bag job in search of dirt. Trump used taxpayer money to pressure – or should we say extort or bribe – the Ukrainian president to give him a thing of value – dirt to win an election.
Not only may that be illegal, but it is an impeachable violation of the Constitution’s sacred command in Article II that the president “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.”
The actual patriots of the Ukraine story are Ambassador William B. Taylor, a West Point graduate, one-time member of the 82nd Airborne and career diplomat, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union and who earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, and former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, whose parents fled the Soviet Union and Nazis and who was removed as ambassador to Ukraine after she wouldn’t play ball with the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, by investigating the Bidens.
All three testified to the House despite White House pressure to shut them up. And the story they told left no doubt but that Trump was insisting on a quid pro quo.
Alternative reality of Trump Twitter-feed
Meanwhile Trump continues to fabricate an alternative reality for his hard-core supporters. In that alternative media universe, the whistle-blower’s complaint is “so inaccurate (fraudulent?)” In fact, sworn testimony of White House and State Department officials has confirmed all the particulars of the complaint.
The New York Times investigated Trump’s alternative Twitter universe and found Trump had retweeted a false conspiracy theory about the Ukraine whistle-blower with the hashtag #FakeWhistleblower. It claimed there was an anti-Trump cabal within the government. In the hours after Trump retweeted the hashtag last month, Twitter readers used the hashtag more the 1,200 times per hour.
The effect of this and other Trump tweets, the Times found, is a “frenetic life cycle of conspiracy-driven propaganda, fakery and hate in the age of the first Twitter presidency. Mr. Trump, whose own tweets have warned of deep-state plots against him, accused the House speaker of treason and labeled Republican critics ‘human scum,’ has helped spread a culture of suspicion and distrust of facts into the political mainstream.”
Now the American people will get a chance to hear public testimony from the true patriots – Taylor, Vindman, and Yovanovitch. It will be a test of our republic whether people believe the patriots risking their careers by testifying about the president’s misdeeds or believe instead the unsourced, invented conspiracy theories the president broadcasts in his alternative Twitter world.
It is the patriotic duty, the constitutional duty of the American media to provide the people with the news and facts they need to make this judgment. And it is the patriotic duty of every American to extract the facts and the truth from the blizzard of false White House claims.
We must take care to preserve what Benjamin Franklin gave us.
William H. Freivogel is the publisher of Gateway Journalism Review and a journalism professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.