On Wednesday, October 23, 2019, a day that will live in infamy, roughly two dozen Republican Congressmen led by Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida stormed the House Intelligence Committee Hearing Room, delaying the scheduled interview of Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper as part of the impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump. Ms. Cooper, who was about to begin testifying when the “storm-the-room” political stunt disrupted the proceedings, was forced to vacate the hearing room for about five hours before order was finally restored.
Ironically, many of the Republican Congressmen who joined in this orchestrated chaos were entitled to participate in the hearing, which was open to all members of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees. Republican members of those committees were also given equal time to cross-examine witnesses, even though they were in the minority and had less than 50% of the members of those committees.
Most disturbingly, many of the Republican protesters breached the tight security restrictions surrounding the hearing room by bringing their cell phones and other electronic devices into this Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (“SCIF”), knowing full well that even when a cell phone is turned off, it can be turned into recording or surveillance device by an adversaries’ intelligence services.
The disruption came one day after Bill Taylor, the U.S.’s top diplomat in Ukraine, gave devastating hearing testimony, confirming that the White House had specifically held up desperately needed military aide to Ukraine in return for a public announcement by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that his country was investigating the conspiracy theories designed to exonerate Russia for its interference with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and targeting Joe and Hunter Biden for alleged “corruption.”
The disruption was apparently carefully planned in advance and had the full backing of President Trump, who had met with some key Republican lawmakers the night before and approved of their planned legislative assault the next day. Trump had been complaining about the lack of support and “push back” from Republicans on the House impeachment inquiry, and some physical demonstration by the Republicans seemed to be one of their few remaining options.
After all, there is an old saying among lawyers that when you have the facts on your side, you pound on the facts; when you have the law on your side, you pound on the law; and when you have neither the facts or the law on your side, you pound on the podium. Trump and his die-hard supporters apparently realize that the factual record of the impeachment inquiry is quickly painting a starkly disturbing portrait of a president who is willing to sacrifice the national interests of the U.S. and the security of one of its staunchest allies on the alter of his own self-interest and political expediency. Republicans also know that this factual record of a massive abuse of presidential power is beginning to squarely fall into the “high crimes and misdemeanor” category that is, in and of itself, more than enough to result in a positive impeachment vote on at least one article of impeachment. With both the facts and the constitutional law lining up against them, Trump and his rabid Republican supporters in Congress decided that they only had one remaining option, which was to unleash the “pound the podium” tactics that have been used so effectively by fascist, communist and other authoritarian forces throughout history to destabilize democratic institutions.
On February 27, 1933, the Nazi Party finally succeeded in its goal of destroying the last democratic bastion of the struggling Weimar Republic by burning down the Reichstag – the German Parliament — precisely four weeks after Adolph Hitler had been sworn in as the Chancellor of Germany. This was the culmination of years of escalating violence and intimidation both within and outside the Reichstag by Nazi political leaders and their thuggish “brownshirt” storm troopers, which eventually tore apart the fragile democratic German republic, consolidated all state power in the hands of one leader and his fascist party, and plunged Europe and the world into war and chaos.
Trump’s MAGA rallies have increasingly come to resemble the massive Nuremberg rallies that Hitler and his Nazi party used to prepare Germany and its youth for another world war that would inevitably lead to a glorious Third Reich that would last 1000 years. The American Nazi Party tried to transplant this ideology to this country, and Trump’s recent rally in Phoenix attended by 20,000 of his true believers was eerily reminiscent of the 1939 Nazi Rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden, which also set record attendance levels for those who found the fascist message of hate and prejudice to be irresistible.
More recently, Putin and his autocratic cronies have used state-sponsored violence and terror to silence the press and to neutralize and eliminate all significant political opposition both in Russia and other former Soviet states that are still in the Russian orbit. In Russia itself, physical altercations between and among members of the Russian Duma (Parliament) over the span of many years has served Putin’s purposes by bringing the entire institution into disrepute and further consolidated Putin’s unchallenged executive power.
Similarly, in Ukraine, in what BBC has referred to as the “Rumbles in the Rada,” legislative debates over Ukraine’s official language policy and other matters have repeatedly devolved into fist-swinging, clothes-ripping brawls among sweaty, screaming members of parliament. During the presidency of pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian members of the Party of Regions staged several legislative assaults on pro-democracy and western-leaning legislators who opposed the recognition of Russian as Ukraine’s second official language and who opposed Yanukovych’s heavy-handed attempts to deliver Ukraine back into the arms of Putin and his Kremlin cronies. After one particularly brutal confrontation, Volodymyr M. Lytvyn, the speaker of the Ukrainian Rada, expressed the common view that Ukraine was on the verge of a “total collapse of parliamentarianism in the country.”
Indeed, the efforts by the pro-Russian president of Ukraine and his allies to destabilize Ukraine’s fledgling and beleaguered democracy may well have succeeded if it were not for the Maidan Uprising in February and March of 2014, where pro-democracy demonstrators in Independence Square in the center of Kyiv were able – after weeks of violence and tragic loss of life by dozens of democratic martyrs – to face down Yanukovych’s pro-Russian storm troopers and force him to flee into exile in Russia. Notwithstanding Yanukovych’s departure, however, fights in the Rada continued up to and including December 2018, undermining the effectiveness of Ukraine’s parliamentary democracy and further polarizing an already deeply-divided country that has still not recovered from the trauma of the Russian annexation of Crimea and a continuing bloody war against Russia and pro-Russian separatists in the eastern part of the country known as Donbas.
Although the U.S. Congress has been largely free of physical confrontations over the past several decades, the recent orchestrated and partisan disruption of the impeachment hearings are most reminiscent of the last time in American history when the House of Representatives was disrupted on a regular basis during the late 1850s, prior to the breakout of a bloody Civil War. The most infamous fistfight there erupted on February 6, 1858, while member of the House were debating Kansas’s pro-slavery constitution. It was reported that more than fifty representatives participated in the melee. Within a few short years, America’s irreconcilable divisions boiled over into a civil war from 1861 to 1865, from which we have not yet fully recovered.
Just to ensure that the racial and regional divisions of the Civil War will never fully be healed – at least while Trump occupies the White House – Trump went out of his way earlier this year to remind us that there were some “good people” among the tiki-torch toting neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, and that Confederate General Robert E. Lee was “a great general.” He then threatened another civil war if Congress follows through on its likely course of action, which is to issue Articles of Impeachment against him. He tweeted a quote from a Baptist pastor’s statement to the effect that impeachment would result in a “Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.”
In 1858, then-Senator William Henry Seward of New York correctly predicted that the accelerating divisions and violence over the slavery and “states’ rights” issues were tearing the country apart and that an “irrepressible conflict” was inevitable. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president on November 6, 1860 was the final catalyst for the 11 Southern and border states, along with most of their Congressional representatives, to refuse to accept Lincoln as the country’s chief executive and to withdraw from the Union.
Are we now at a similar crossroads in our history? Are we on the brink of Civil War II? Trump and his most ardent allies seem to relish the idea that America needs another bloodletting. Are the upper 1% of America’s super-rich class who benefitted from Trump’s recent massive tax cuts going to stand idly by while Congressional Democrats pass articles of impeachment which may not lead to his removal, but will likely lead to a landslide election in November 2020 of an Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders or other progressive-leaning and audacious Democrat who is calling for the enactment of a “wealth tax” and other “radical” measures designed to remedy the growing chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us? And what about the racists, neo-Nazis, xenophobes, nativists, gun nuts, right-wing conspiracy theorists and other who irrational devotees who make up some (but not entirely all) of Trump’s base? Are they going to stand idly by when their Great Leader is impeached and removed from office or, more likely, resoundingly beaten at the polls in November 2020? Not likely. Trump followed up his earlier “civil war” threats by tweeting: “ I am coming to the conclusion that what is taking place is not an impeachment, it is a COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of the United States of America!” Trump even went so far as to accuse Chairman Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee of “treason,” no doubt forgetting that the Constitution’s definition of “Treason” is the giving of “aid and comfort” to America’s enemies, which is something that Trump has been doing from day one in the White House.
In other words, now that as a result of the ham-handed, amateurish and disastrous efforts of Rudy Giuliani, Mick Mulvaney, Mike Pence, a couple of Ukrainian-American mobsters (Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) and a few rogue State Department operatives, Trump has finally been hoisted onto the “Ukraine Affair” petard and fully exposed for the narcissistic, self-serving and treasonous lout that he always was. He has no real options other than to (number 1): come to his senses, stand down, resign while the going is still good (a la Nixon), and grab a full pardon from Pence in the process as he boards the Marine 1 helicopter on the White House lawn after delivering a dark and angry non-apology complaining to the end that he was persecuted and driven from office unfairly by a “deep state” conspiracy and coup d’etat. This would be the smart move, which means that “double down” Trump is not even remotely likely to take it.
So, then, what is the only other “door” that is open to him? He will continue to whip his “base” into a frenzy, promoting acts of violence and, if necessary, an armed revolution. As Lawfare and other commentators have already noted, the internet chatter far right-wing militias about pursuing their “second amendment” options has been on the rise and is unlikely to abate.
On June 27, 2018, a Rasmussen Reports survey of U.S. voters found that 31% said “it’s likely that the United States will experience a second civil war sometime in the next five years.” Given the rancor engendered by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings, the Mueller Report, the administration’s callous caging of refugee children at the border and the commencement of Congress’ impeachment inquiry, it is likely that the percentage of Americans psychologically (or otherwise) preparing themselves for a civil war has only increased.
For 243 years, America has been the beacon of light and protector of freedom, democracy, inalienable human rights not only in this country, but around the world. Generations of Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve these values, but if we take democratic institutions for granted and think that Trump and what he stands for is just some aberration or bad dream that will go away once the fever breaks, we do so at our peril. Numerous once-vibrant democracies such as Hungary and Turkey have slid into “illiberal democracies” with a decidedly authoritarian edge, where the rule of law with truly independent legislative and judicial branches have buckled under the stress and wily maneuverings of strong authoritarian leaders. America could very well be next.
In 1778, Benjamin Franklin asked by a bystander outside the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia: “What kind of government will it be?” Without hesitation, Franklin replied: “A democracy, if you can keep it.” Also painfully aware of the fragility of liberty and any democratic form of government, Thomas Jefferson wrote from Paris in 1787: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” He also fretted that “lethargy … is the forerunner of death to the public liberty.”
So when our children and grandchildren ask us years from now about this watershed moment in our nation’s history, when anti-democratic and authoritarian forces occupied the White House, much of Congress, and tried their mightiest to shred the Constitution and silent dissent: “What did you do? Which side were you on?” Each of us should have a good answer to give them, because the storm clouds are forming, and it definitely feels like rain.
Kenneth F. McCallion is an attorney, former federal prosecutor and author of Treason & Betrayal: The Rise and Fall of Individual 1. He is currently working on his next book: Civil War Two. Peter Borisow is a Ukrainian-American and film maker who has been active in the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine.
October 23 was a stab in the heart, a blow to the very soul of America and all it stands for. We must flush this evil before it destroys us altogether.