The pivotal question of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump was fittingly both the result of seeking favorable media coverage and considered in terms of what kind of media coverage it would create.
According to CNN sources, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy rebuked then-President Donald Trump in a phone call during the January 6 siege of the Capitol. Trump reportedly mocked a desperate McCarthy’s plea to quell the rioters. “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are,” Trump is said to have said. The source claims that McCarthy shot back: “Who the f–k do you think you’re talking to?”
The chances that exchange went down verbatim are about as good as the chances for snow in Bakersfield on the Fourth of July. Don’t worry about packing your parka. McCarthy is not quite Lindsey Graham, who celebrated the former president’s acquittal by beaming dewy-eyed love for Trump into a Fox News camera, praising him as “potent,” though sometimes “a handful”—as if Trump were a prize bull loosed in a cow pasture. But McCarthy still doesn’t seem like he would be so sassy as to rebuke Trump. Maybe in the chaos and panic, he lashed out. Maybe the outburst was what led McCarthy to don Lilly Pulitzer sackcloth and head to Mar-a-Lago for re-admittance to the faith.
It’s McCarthy’s question, though, that sounds the goofiest. Trump knew exactly who the eff he had on the line. Indeed, in subsequent weeks McCarthy would prove Trump was talking to a congressional leader who disdains congressional power. Trump was talking to a subordinate, and they both knew it.
The source, a member of Congress, was not present for the call, only McCarthy’s recounting of his own allegedly salty rebuke of Trump. Even a novice observer of the seamy racket of Washington blind quotes can see right away that McCarthy would have been telling such a story to make himself look tough in the eyes of his fellow House Republicans. It’s the kind of blind quote that should include this attribution: “a source who was granted anonymity out of a sense of shared embarrassment at such self-serving treacle.”
Whatever the motivations of the member of Congress who shared McCarthy’s puffy vignette, the consequences quickly caromed at the House minority leader. One of the Republican members whom McCarthy had been regaling with his heroic tale, Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state, had already told her constituents in a town hall last Monday about the unflattering part of the call in which the then-president taunted the House GOP leader during the attack. When the blind quote casting McCarthy as a tough guy appeared, Herrera Beutler sprang forth with her own account and volunteered that she had kept notes on McCarthy’s bull session. She had been one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump and does not see McCarthy as the hero of his own action movie.
This development came Friday evening as the Senate trial was collapsing in a heap at the finish line. In one of the greatest single acts of self-abnegation in the history of the modern vassal Congress, most Senate Republicans had declared that trying Trump would be unconstitutional. The Madisonian machinery of the federal government has broken down to such a point that 44 members of the Senate voted to deny themselves and their successors the power to punish the executive unless all matters are concluded before the end of his or her term.
While there are certainly arguments against the constitutionality of such an action, how sad it is to hear them from members of Congress. How little they care for the power of the institution they have worked so hard to join and expend so much of their effort and other people’s money to remain a part. Rather than declare Trump innocent or guilty, which might make staying harder, they let him off on a technicality—a brazen and effective bit of jury nullification. Trump would never be convicted.
The emergence of McCarthy’s self-flattery raised an important question, though: Could House prosecutors present the testimony of Herrera Beutler to discuss what the minority leader had said as evidence Trump was unwilling to call off the mob? When the Senate voted on Saturday to allow witnesses, it looked like the trial could drag on for days longer. The anger among some Senate Republicans and excitement among some Democrats at the possibility of prolongment tells you all you need to know about how Congress sees itself these days.
The outcome—another diminution of congressional power—was already known. The real fight was over how to program the reality show that Congress has become. Partisan affiliation had decided the big question, but not the manner and duration of the embarrassment for the winning side. Republicans won that one, too, after Trump’s lawyers threatened to drag out the proceedings even longer than Democrats had hoped. And in one last wheezing gasp, the second impeachment of Trump would end.
Even surrounded by barricades garlanded with razor wire and protected by their own garrison of troops, members of Congress never lost sight of their prime directive: Spin at all costs.