OP-ED: Is there anything America’s powerful can’t get away with?

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

A lot of stuff had to happen before Donald Trump could stand in front of Iowa voters on a chilly yet somehow more innocent day back in January 2016 and make his famous declaration that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK … ” — shocking his critics yet also winning a few knowing nods.

Maybe The Donald was thinking about all those years in New York real estate where he was always just one step ahead of the law, whether it was that FBI obstruction of justice probe back in ‘81 or all the years of alleged money laundering, or the times when his pal at the National Enquirer covered for him, or how he got a network TV gig to make him look like the world’s smartest businessman after literally losing more money than any individual in the United States, or how he could simply buy his way out of scams like Trump U. or the latest mistress by writing a check.

Or maybe Trump was thinking bigger that day nearly four years ago — about how his good friend Jeffrey Epstein had been caught with those young girls and yet still the doors of Manhattan high society flung open for him, or all his banker friends down on Wall Street who crashed the world economy and then skated away without a scratch. Or perhaps — since he was running for president — he realized that you could start a war on bogus pretenses that killed tens of thousands of people, bring back torture, and launch an American gulag at Gitmo and they’ll still drape medals around your neck.

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to address the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

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But it wasn’t until July 24, 2019, that Donald Trump, 45th president, went from thinking he was untouchable to believing he was truly immortal. That was the day he watched an enfeebled special counsel Robert Mueller testify before Congress and realized there’d be no personal consequences for welcoming Russia’s 2016 election interference or his alleged efforts to quash that probe. It was the very next day that Trump called Ukraine’s new president and — with critical defense aid in limbo — asked for “a favor, though” that would launch the new era of 2020 election interference.

As I write this on Thursday morning, the acting head of the intelligence community is before a House committee, the shocking words of the whistleblower who blew open the Trump-Ukraine scandal are being dissected, and there’s no way I can guarantee there won’t be more shocking disclosures between now and the time you actually read this.

With more than half of House members now behind an aggressive inquiry, it appears highly likely that Trump will become just the third president in America’s 243-year history to face an impeachment trial — exactly what so many of us feared that long November night when a narcissistic vulgarian with authoritarian tendencies won Electoral College bingo.

You’d think the certainty that articles of impeachment will begin raining down from the dark cloud that’s followed Trump these 32 months would be something of a relief — but instead the smell of fear permeates America right now. The New York Times columnist Frank Bruni — who’s often been the voice of America’s conflicted and confused elites during this whole sordid era — wrote Thursday morning on “Why a Trump Impeachment Should Terrify You.” He explains that “a dangerously polarized and often viciously partisan country would grow more so, with people on opposing sides hunkering down deeper in their camps and clinging harder to their chosen narratives as the president — concerned only with himself — ratcheted up his insistence that truth itself was subjective and up for grabs.”

That judgment will surely be reflected to some degree across America’s newsrooms. Bruni’s own newspaper shocked a lot of folks — myself included — Thursday with a breach of journalistic ethics in which several die-hard Trump fans were somehow portrayed as “swing voters,” in order to brand impeachment a political turnoff. That conclusion is going to bubble up in a lot of the coverage, along with the poll showing that 57% of Americans (a majority of those being Republicans, but still) now oppose impeachment.

But here’s the thing: That feature of modern American life that Frank Bruni so abhors, the “insistence that truth itself was subjective and up for grabs,” is exactly what will be on the line in the impeachment trial of Donald J. Trump, coming soon to a U.S. Senate near you. Because between the memo describing Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the still-unknown whistleblower’s damning complaint, we are now seeing what the political equivalent of standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shooting someone actually looks like.

Needless to say, were there a real murder on Fifth Avenue — whether the gunman was the president of the United States or some unknown schnook — the Manhattan district attorney wouldn’t wait for a public opinion poll, nor would he fret that the spectacle of a public homicide trial might tear New York City apart. So then why do we see murder as the clear-cut matter of morality that it is, but act so fearfully about bringing our corrupt and powerful leaders to any account? The greatest risk to the endangered American Experiment right now will come if Trump’s fate is decided on the basis of fear and focus groups and the political winds — and not on whether prosecuting a president who bullies a foreign nation to help in his reelection is a simple matter of right-and-wrong.

While I was writing the first paragraph of this column, a story moved across the Associated Press wire saying that the gap between the haves and the have-nots in America is the greatest it’s been since the U.S. Census Bureau started tracking it 50 years ago. The real man-or-woman-on-the-street feels this, and not just in the wallet. They know instinctively there are two kinds of justice, one for people like them and another for the folks on Fifth Avenue.

Impeachment terrifies the Frank Brunis and — before Monday, anyway — the Nancy Pelosis of the world because real justice is hard. Injustice is easy, like a cruel stone rolling down a hill. It crushes those below them, in a nation where locking up young black men is a lot more expedient than fixing their broken neighborhoods, yet it runs away at accelerating speed from the Donald Trumps and the Jeffrey Epsteins and all the others who hire the right lawyers and know the right people.

Freedom from the botched Mueller probe wasn’t Trump’s second chance, but more like his 572nd chance, so is it any wonder he was on the phone criming the very next day? There’s a long way to go before America can plausibly claim that no man is above the law, but the impeachment of a crooked president will be a massive and long-overdue step in the right direction. Otherwise, that gun smoke wafting down the Fifth Avenue of American politics will carry the stench of a dead democracy.