Opinion | White House

Trump's impeachment harkens to Pope Alexander VI's laughable court

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"Intacta!" As I watched the members of Congress and chief justice try, by means of pomp and solemn ceremony, to confer the trappings of legitimacy upon the president's removal hearing, that word - "intacta!" - echoed down the centuries. 

It harkens back to 1497. In that year, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI's court, like today's Senate, had to make a difficult decision. The pope had decided that his brilliant, beautiful daughter Lucrezia - that's right, his daughter; it's a long story - would be the perfect bride in an arranged, politically advantageous marriage. 

There were two problems with this decision. First, she was already married. No problem, the pope reasoned; we will have it annulled on the grounds that her first marriage could not be consummated.  

The second problem complicated the first. She was, of all things, pregnant and her offspring could have been anyone's, including, rumor still has it, the pope's himself or his son the cardinal's. That was a decadent age; the Protestant Reformation hadn't yet restored rectitude to public life. Wealthy and powerful men could have anyone they wanted, back then. Despite his daughter's gravid state, the pope persisted, confident of his powers of persuasion over the papal court. As described by William Manchester in "A World Lit Only By Fire," Lucrezia was ordered to appear on Dec. 22, 1497, at the Lateran Palace "for a ceremonial annulment. ... A curious crowd flocked to the palace and there they saw that the pontiff's daughter, despite her loose, full skirt, was six months with child." 

One can only imagine the high pomp attending that wretched circumstance; pitched to the dubious legitimacy of its occasion, it must have made the royal weddings seem like an elopement on "Hillbilly Handfishin'." Picture it: the solemn and silent procession through palatial space of the comely maiden, attended on either side by the papal court prelates. Intoning words of ethereal piety, they investigated her condition fully, turned to the crowd, and pronounced her ... a virgin! According to Manchester, "When the canonical judges delivered their judgment, solemnly declaring her 'intacta!' - a virgin - laughter echoed through the old halls."    

As an example of a political judgment rendered with little regard to evidence, it's hard to top that. But in the case of President Trump's impeachment, both parties are proving worthy successors.  

We are reminded repeatedly these days that this is only the third impeachment trial in over 200 years, the implication being that the occasion calls for the pomp of the silent processions, the formal oaths that recall our founding. Not enough has been made, however, of the fact that when the trial is completed, two of the three impeachment trials will have occurred within the past 25 years. That characterization shines a more focused light on what this "trial" signifies: both parties' complicity in the crisis of legitimacy of our "two-party" system.

Let's start with the Republicans, who have placed their conservative credentials - concern over deficit spending, support of strong alliances, opposition to protectionism in favor of free trade - in a blind trust during the Trump years. These are the same folks, many of them, who questioned the legitimacy of Bill Clinton's presidency throughout, hoping that the Whitewater scandal, the "Steele dossier" of its day, would finish him and who ended up impeaching him for, well, hillbilly handfishin' with a White House intern and telling a whopper under oath. 

These are the same folks who insisted that the Clinton impeachment trial just wouldn't be the same unless the nation heard live testimony from "that woman, Miss Lewinsky"; they are now insisting that there is no need for live testimony, and that the Trump case can be decided on the papers and arguments of counsel, as amplified by the answers to senatorial questions. 

Most egregious, many of them have already declared, having considered no evidence at all, that they will not vote to remove the president. They are an "intacta!" squad in the making; the only things missing are the high hats and garish robes. 

On the other hand, the Democrats' case for removing President Trump would be more compelling if so many of their most prominent members and their media pals hadn't been looking openly for a reason to remove him from the time he was elected. After waiting breathlessly for the Mueller Report to say the president should be removed, they paused when it didn't quite say that; faster than you can say "Ukrainians have gas," however, they pivoted to the whistleblower issue.  

Having decided that it was their solemn constitutional duty to conduct an impeachment inquiry, they determined that that duty came, like the holiday shopping season, with a deadline. They then undermined that deadline by withholding the articles of impeachment for nearly a month. 

Even if the facts don't ultimately justify President Trump's removal, the allegations against him  are serious; they merit a full investigation, regardless of the election timetable. If the president forces Congress to go to court to enforce compulsory process, so be it. Any delay in the proceedings would be a result of the president's conduct, not Congress's investigation. 

By short-circuiting the process, however, the Democrats failed even to subpoena, let alone to hear from, essential fact witnesses such as former national security adviser John Bolton and Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, and now are reduced to crying foul that the Republicans are resisting live testimony. By rushing, they voted articles of impeachment based on an incomplete record, knowing that the decision to assemble a complete record would be left to Senate Republicans.

I don't know how this hearing will end; let's just say that I will not be surprised if, at the end of the day, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and company compel Chief Justice John Roberts to rise and say of President Trump, in effect, "Intacta!" 

Regardless of the outcome, if there has been no consideration of a fully developed record, then like the citizens of 1497, may our laughter echo through the old halls, and out across the mountains and the prairies, from sea to shining sea.

As with the public's laughter in 1497, our laughter will speak volumes. A mere 20 years after the Borgia Pope's "intacta!" farce, the Reformation began. Our laughter, like theirs, will say we haven't been fooled. It will say there is such a thing as truth. Above all, it will say that "we, the people" want to emerge from this dark period of toxic partisanship with our republic - there is no other word - intact.

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

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