GUEST COMMENTARY--Years from now, there will be a moment that you remember from the impeachment of Donald J. Trump. What will it be?
The sonorous voice of ex-Ambassador William Taylor recounting how his president extorted an allied country? Nancy Pelosi, somber and makeupless, sending the articles of impeachment off across the Capitol? Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) feebly insisting that Trump, having gotten off scot-free, “would think twice before he did it again”?
For me, there are two moments that will stick after I forget most of the rest(hopefully). One was the night of January 23, when Rep. Adam Schiff stood in front of that black marble wall in the Senate, looking drawn and sober as he concluded the House’s case.
You know Donald Trump did it, he said. “He withheld the money. He withheld the meeting. He used it to coerce Ukraine to do these political investigations. He covered it up. He obstructed us. He’s trying to obstruct you. He’s violated the Constitution.
“No one is really making the argument ‘Donald Trump would never do such a thing.’ Because of course we know that he would, and of course we know that he did.”
And it was crystal clear at that moment that yes, they all knew it, they knew it was wrong, and they couldn’t find the courage to vote on that knowledge.
Except for one—and that brings me to the other moment. This morning, jaws dropped everywhere a TV was tuned to the news as Mitt Romney delivered what had to be the most difficult speech of his political life.
“Corrupting an election to keep oneself in office is perhaps the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine,” he said, dabbing impatiently at tears. Yes, he was sure to be heaped with “abuse from the president” and fellow Republicans. “But my promise to do impartial justice requires that I put aside my personal feelings and political biases.”
Contrast that with Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who gave essentially the same speech except for the part that mattered. She called Trump’s behavior “shameful and wrong,” and noted that “degrading the office by [his] actions or even name-calling weakens it for future presidents and it weakens our country.” Then she voted to acquit.
What happened today may make you angry, or perhaps relieved. But what’s most important, on this historic day, is that it not make you paralyzed. Because we learned a lot of things in the past few weeks, and the fact that accountability in our government is broken (for now) is only one of them.
“If right doesn’t matter,” Schiff said that night, “if the truth doesn’t matter, then we are lost.” A lot of truth came out as part of these proceedings, and the vast majority of Americans wanted more of it.
The Senate decision was made by 52 people, who represent 18 million fewer voters than their counterparts across the aisle. Among the public, more than three-quarters wanted the Senate to call witnesses.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell can decide that truth does not matter. Fox News might (with a few exceptions) decide that truth doesn’t matter. But the majority of Americans—including 69 percent of Republicans—have not, and it is to them that we as journalists owe our allegiance.
We can’t send a subpoena, but we can knock on doors, dig through documents, analyze data, and bring the truth to light the best we can. Because three out of four Americans wanted to hear evidence. That is critical. It means that while Trump has broken key structures of accountability, he has not entirely broken America’s brain.
Eh, you might be thinking, what about the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh bubble? Granted, that world is not easily pierced. But how many people actually watch Sean Hannity, for example? Just over 3 million. That number probably includes some very opinionated folks in your circles. But it’s about half the audience of the CBS Evening News, and about a third of the number who watched the first day of the impeachment trial. It is, in fact, half as many as Mother Jones reaches each month.
So let’s not conclude, just yet, that “we’re lost.” There is a lot of truth yet to come out about Trump’s actions, and if the Senate won’t let Americans see it, the rest of us need to step up.
As the battle over witnesses raged and John Bolton turned from Fox News hero to Fox News punching bag, I found myself flashing back to the Iraq War. Back then, Bolton and the other neoconservatives were busy tricking Americans into supporting the invasion. Paul Wolfowitz, then the No. 2 at the Pentagon, would eventually admit that they believed they were misleading us for our own good. Invading Iraq, they had convinced themselves, was good for America, but the voters were not sophisticated enough to send their children into the line of fire for that reason.
That’s why the WMD cover story was needed. Americans—even their own voters—could not be trusted with the truth.
I was a young editor at Mother Jones back then, and what made me grateful not to be working anywhere else—despite the crazy hours and the shoestring budget—was that, amid a media landscape bent on amplifying the administration’s deceptions, we got to call things what they were. We got to publish stories about the 30-year push to control the Gulf’s oil; inside accounts of how the WMD tale was spun; and an exhaustive timeline showing exactly what politicians and media figures knew and when they knew it. We called it “Lie by Lie,” because euphemisms are for cowards.
That’s not patting ourselves on the back. We were just doing our job as journalists. What allows Mother Jones to do that job fully and unapologetically in times of crisis is that we are accountable to you, our readers, and not corporate suits or billionaires with agendas. Back in 2012, when Mitt Romney ran for president, we did our job investigating his corporate ties and controversial remarks; in 2016, when Trump sought the job, we did the same for pandering to white supremacists and his foreign financial interests.
In 2020, we’re going to have to do our job like never before. In part because there are fewer real journalists working than at any moment in recent history, and those remaining are forced (or force themselves) to hew to outdated notions of false equivalency. And in part because our government is so much more determined that Americans can’t be trusted with the facts—even when an overwhelming majority demands them.
The Senate majority withheld information from the public—including their own supporters—because they did not trust the public with the truth. Voters could not be exposed to the details of how their president betrayed them. They could not be allowed to hear from John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, or any of those who were in the room as Trump sold the nation’s interest for a fistful of political dirt.
But we still have the most important trial of all ahead of us, the one before the voters. You are the jury, and you have investigators at your disposal—us journalists. We’ll go to work for you.
In the end, a lot of America is in the same boat right now, looking for a way to understand what’s happening and to make sense of these unprecedented events. So let’s compare notes for a moment. We’re curious where the Mother Jones community is landing on this heavy day.
How are you processing what happened today? What will you do (or not do) as a result? Do you think investigating Trump's behavior with Ukraine was a mistake that will benefit Trump, or the right thing to do regardless of who it benefits?
(Monika Bauerlein is CEO at Mother Jones.)