WASHINGTON—This month, a Donald Trump supporter who acknowledged the president was “vulgar, amoral, narcissistic” went on to tell Politico that the impeachment process has not dented Trump’s appeal, but deepened it. “To those of us who support what he has accomplished, it feels like he is our O.J.”
The comparison to the 1990s trial of O.J. Simpson is a cute, if limited, analogy: ubiquitous celebrity defendants in televised, saturation-news coverage trials with public opinion sharply divided between those who are certain of guilt and those who think the trial itself is an injustice.
When Trump named Alan Dershowitz, a high-profile lawyer who was part of O.J.’s legal “Dream Team” to his own defence squad, it just added another parallel. On Monday night, Dershowitz argued the eccentric legal opinion that “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress” are not impeachable offences. This is not a mainstream position among constitutional experts, and previous impeachment articles against presidents Nixon and Clinton included counts for abuse of power (though in the Clinton case that article was not passed in the House), and Nixon’s included obstruction of Congress.
Still, it was clear as Trump’s team wrapped its arguments Tuesday that the thrust of Dershowitz’s argument — that the conduct Trump is accused of doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment — may be among the most persuasive available to Trump.
It is up to senators to judge the seriousness of the alleged transgressions and decide if they merit removing a president. In Clinton’s case, for example, the Senate concluded that his clear commission of perjury was of more personal than national significance.
Saying Trump’s actions are similarly unworthy of impeachment may have become an easier sell than saying he didn’t do them.
There is no question that the president asked Ukraine’s government to conduct investigations, even going so far as to name a political opponent as a desired target (read the transcript!). There is no doubt that $391 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine was held up without formal explanation. Some of those who worked for Trump — and were appointed by him — testified they thought the aid was tied to Ukraine’s announcing the investigations. EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland told Ukraine directly that that was the case. And now former national security adviser John Bolton — whose potential testimony has been the key drama of the week — writes in his soon-to-be-published book manuscript that Trump told him directly that the aid and the demand for investigations were linked, according to the New York Times.
The trial may hear more evidence or may not, but the credibility of the claim that there was never a quid pro quo is now in tatters.
Another Trump defence that may also prove persuasive draws still another parallel to the O.J. Simpson case — that the prosecutors are bad guys who are just out to get him.
“It’s almost a jury nullification type of defence,” lawyer James McGovern told the New York Times last week. “They want Republicans and the people inclined to vote their way to be comfortable with the decision based on some concept of unfairness.”
The term “jury nullification” gained exposure during the Simpson trial, when defence lawyers portrayed police as racists who were just out to get a Black defendant. The term is used by academics to describe jury acquittals in protest of unjust laws or prosecutions — usually for minor offences — even if the defendant is clearly guilty. Trump and his defenders are calling for jury nullification of a sort, portraying the impeachment process as a partisan “sham” and a “witch hunt” and viciously attacking those who have advanced it. His defenders say the only reason Democrats want to remove Trump from office is because they hate him.
It will strike many as odd that anyone would consider Republicans — the party in the U.S. that occupies the presidency as well as a majority of state governorships and the Senate — as a persecuted class, but it’s a perception echoed by many Trump supporters, as well as a number of senators now in a position to decide Trump’s fate
It’s hard to tell if Republican senators really believe that, or if they just say it because they know their voters believe it. Either way, it’s how you come up with “He is our O.J.” — and at least part of why they expect Trump’s trial will end the same way O.J.’s did.
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