Still, Team Trump worked hard on Monday to make pitiful seem like a high-water mark they were not even interested in reaching. Across the day, they took a tripartite approach: denying Trump did anything wrong, smearing Joe Biden, and declaring that abuse of power is not impeachable in roughly equal—and equally bad—portions.
The day started out in denial territory, with the case continuing from the positions Trump’s core group of attorneys had held on Saturday. Resting on the certainty that Republicans would never ask for a fact witness to appear, Cipollone and company continued to tout the idea that the case meticulously assembled by the House managers was lacking the critical connections that would show Trump’s hands on the wheel. As it has from the time of the House hearings, this case boiled down to the fact that Trump had never stood on top of the Resolute Desk to deliver a Lex Luthor-style monologue, explaining every step of his actions complete with a diagram of connections. Short of this, said Trump’s team, there can’t really be a case. Also, Trump said, “No quid pro quo,” while explaining that someone would have to give him that to get this. So, all good.
But every word of that argument on Monday required that Trump’s attorneys ignore the elephantine Yosemite Sam in the room. With not only the revelation that John Bolton was willing to testify, but also his leaked manuscript providing a very good indication that any testimony would definitely not exonerate Trump, Republicans on both Trump’s legal team and the Senate floor—which is really the same thing—had to spend the morning operating with fingers firmly pressed in their ears. Meanwhile, Fox News began a concerted effort to explain that John Bolton was not really a Republican, had never been a Republican, and was really a deep-state operative in bed with (quick spin of the random Trump Enemy dial) … James Comey.
The middle chunk of Monday was devoted to using the Senate to achieve what Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump, and all Dmytro Firtash’s men, could not accomplish in Ukraine: a public smear of Joe Biden. The primary tactic for accomplishing this was simple enough: utterly flipping the facts on their ear. Over the course of the day, Trump’s team argued that Biden had pushed to eliminate a prosecutor who was investigating the company where his son worked. Which was and is 100% a lie. They built on that lie with the lie that Biden’s actions were somehow beneficial to his son. A good chunk of this was delivered by attorney Pam Bondi, whose chief talent lies in her ability to take a bribe. That was, unfortunately, not a talent that contributed much to her talk on Monday.
However, this part of the day seemed to be a hit with Republican senators, who couldn’t wait to get to a microphone during the next break to talk about how well they had smeared Joe Biden. That was particularly true of Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, who gushed with joy as she pondered how a day of dragging his family through the mud might directly change the outcome of the looming primaries. Which … does Ernst remember why this trial was going on in the first place?
In any case, Ernst and others proved that Trump had wasted considerable time and effort overseas. After all, plain old American corruption could be had for the cost of a few dollars in campaign contributions and the treat of a Twitter beat-down. There was really no need to threaten Ukraine, what with that kind of talent in America’s heartland.
Finally, the day was capped off by Alan Dershowitz’s effort to explain that this wasn’t “no harm, no foul,” because there aren’t any fouls. With the nation’s constitutional scholars looking on, Dershowitz reminded listeners that he is a defense attorney to the nation’s most notorious, who rode to fame attached to the names Claus von Bülow, O. J. Simpson, and Brett Kavanaugh. His work as a professor of constitutional law consists of: He isn’t one, and his record before the Supreme Court is a perfect 0 for 0. So Dershowitz was clearly the perfect choice to engage in a long technical argument that boiled down to, the Founding Fathers didn’t know what the hell the Founding Fathers were talking about … but Dershowitz could read their minds.
Overall, the day was an embarrassment top to bottom. Much of it, particularly Dershowitz, wasn’t even the fun kind of embarrassment. It didn’t rise to the ranks of so-bad-it-was-good. It was just bad. It was so bad that—other than the GOP- and Trump-pleasing section of Biden-smearing—it’s difficult to recall a single salient point, just hours after they stopped talking.
In any case, the real case on Monday wasn’t happening in front of Mitch McConnell’s carefully aimed camera. It was happening offscreen, where Republicans were trying desperately to calculate whether giving Trump the quick acquittal that he wants—a move that had seemed like a sure thing on Friday, despite a crackerjack case from the House managers—was still such a slam dunk. Republicans always knew that going along with Trump was going to make them part of the conspiracy. They just didn’t know it was going to be this damn obvious.