The Very Serious People in Washington — the same people who supported the war in Iraq, always consider deficit-reduction a top priority, thought Hillary Clinton was entitled to the presidency, hold no grudge against torturers, and believe Democrats and Republican have become equally extreme — long ago concluded that any talk of impeaching Donald Trump was ridiculous, flaky, and delusional.
It’s not. By any normal standard, Trump has committed numerous impeachable offenses. Special counsel Robert Mueller is almost assuredly going to tell us about many more. And if impeachment is the remedy to a manifestly unfit president, it’s long overdue.
But members of the Washington media elite take themselves Very Seriously.
It does not matter that the Very Serious People have been wrong about literally everything in the last couple decades. Their tone is considered “neutral” by the media elite. The “View from Nowhere” is actually the View of the Very Serious People.
The Very Serious People share an ideology — neoconservative on foreign policy, fiscally allegiant to the 1 percent — but what really defines them is their sense of moral superiority over those who get upset at the status quo.
Similarly, their default approach is not to judge policy on its merits — say, on the effect it would have on actual, living, normal Americans — but rather to discuss the optics. They see politics as a sport. They judge winners and losers, and feel they are staying above the political fray.
(The term “Very Serious People” was coined by Duncan Black, aka the blogger Atrios, and popularized by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who writes that Very Serious People believe that “it’s better to have been conventionally wrong than unconventionally right.”)
So how did the elite media cover Michael Cohen’s absolutely devastating testimony on Wednesday?
They should have been framing it the same way John Nichols did for The Nation:
How, if the Congress is still to be understood as a meaningful check and balance on electoral and executive abuses, can the US House of Representatives neglect so devastating an indictment of Donald Trump by a man who served for a critical decade ‘as his Executive Vice President and Special Counsel and then personal attorney when he became President’?
But they didn’t.
Look, I understand that practically speaking, it may make sense for Democrats to wait until after Mueller goes public with his findings to start talking actively about removing the president. At that point, it might well be a slam dunk, as they say. There’s also a solid argument named Mike Pence against impeachment, at this point it’s a dead letter in the Senate, and it would certainly be divisive.
But the coverage shouldn’t be about will-they-or-won’t-they. It should be about whether there’s a case to be made.
And to the extent that there is an important political question, it should be aimed at Republicans, not Democrats: How can they possibly still be defending Trump?
Cohen’s testimony in particular offered the media an extraordinary opportunity to review what we know, and assess it by the standards to which we normally hold presidents.
Instead, we get this:
New York Times: Impeach Trump? Defend Him? Cohen Hearing Shows Perils for Both Parties. In a “news analysis,” Michael D. Shear writes:
[The coming year will] be a test for both parties, particularly Democrats, who after Wednesday’s testimony from Mr. Cohen will face a rising chorus from the liberal wing of the party to impeach Mr. Trump for what it says is a clear case of a president who defrauded the public about hush payments and business dealings before an election and then lied about it from the White House.
Faced with that pressure, how long will Democratic leaders be able to argue against impeachment proceedings? And if they move ahead, with little hope of attracting bipartisan support, will they risk a backlash at the polls from voters?
“The more you do this, it just fires up the base that thinks that each day he stays in office it endangers the republic,” said Thomas M. Davis, a former Republican congressman from Virginia who once led the Oversight Committee when his party controlled the House. “It’s the old thing about be careful what you ask for.”
Shear notes — but buries — the more obvious “peril”:
For Republicans, Mr. Cohen’s allegations will once again require Mr. Trump’s followers to decide how long they will stand by a president whose actions threaten not only his administration but also the fate of politicians in the party he now leads.
Associated Press: Cohen hearing stokes touchy topic of impeachment. Lisa Mascaro and Steve Peoples write:
For some, the outcome may — or may not — lead to grounds for impeachment. For others, impeachment cannot come fast enough.
What is certain, though, is the mounting tension. As the hearings and investigations unfold, Democrats, particularly those running for the White House, may be speeding toward a moment when they have no choice but to consider the I-word.
Newsweek: Why Cohen’s Revelations Won’t Lead to Trump’s Impeachment. Alan Neuhauser writes:
[T]here’s general agreement that the alleged conduct — although apparent federal crimes — do not amount to the ‘high crimes and misdemeanors” justifying impeachment and conviction under Article 2 of the Constitution, a process that requires not only the House to vote for impeachment but two-thirds of the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority, to then vote for conviction.
“In the public understanding of the framers, it is pretty clear that it is limited to conduct while in office,” says David Rivkin, a conservative constitutional law scholar who served in the administrations of President George W. Bush and President Ronald Reagan. “So whatever Donald J. Trump did or did not do in 2011 or 2013 or all the way through Jan. 20, 2017, is utterly irrelevant to the scope of impeachable offenses. In fact, the whole goal of impeachment is limited to your offenses as a public person — breach of public trust.”
(Cohen, incidentally, gave House investigators a copy of a check Trump wrote to repay him for illegal hush-money payments in August 2017.)
Some of the coverage feels almost like taunting.
NBC: Democrats face a dilemma on impeachment. Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and Carrie Dann write:
Democrats have a problem on their hands.
How do they reconcile their growing belief that President Trump has committed crimes — especially after Michael Cohen’s testimony on Wednesday — with their hesitation/reluctance to consider impeachment?
But if you believe that what President Trump has done is WAY WORSE than Clinton ever did, aren’t you tolerating/normalizing this kind of behavior if you don’t consider impeachment ASAP?
Many but not all of the Washington Post’s columnists are Very Serious. The excellent Eugene Robinson’s column is headlined Michael Cohen’s revelations advance Trump’s inevitable reckoning, and he seems to be almost calling for impeachment when he writes: “Getting him out of office is an urgent task for our democracy.”
Meanwhile, the large, dominant, lunatic far-right contingent of Post columnists as usual provided comic relief. See Marc A. Thiessen: Michael Cohen was supposed to provide ‘bombshell’ testimony. It didn’t explode. And (new arrival) (because by golly the Post needed another Christian-right-neoconservative columnist) Henry Olsen: Michael Cohen has blown a lot of political smoke but no impeachable fire.
But the sine qua non of Seriousness, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius doesn’t disappoint. “Democrats will face a growing dilemma about how aggressively they should pursue Trump,” he writes.
And he adds, for good measure: “As November 2020 approaches, the argument will increase that the issue should be left to the public.”