Goblet or Heads?—or, You Can’t Beat Something with Nothing

goblet heads

Many have remarked on how the Republican members of the House Oversight Committee beclowned themselves yesterday.(I am, as always, indebted to a good friend for sending along this highly bemused British take on the clown show.)

Here, I only want to make two points.

First, Cohen was superbly prepared and ready. Obviously, someone—I assume it was Lanny Davis—spent many hours role playing with Cohen, anticipating each and every thing that would be thrown at him, and then practicing over and over again how to respond. Good for Cohen, and good for his lawyer—whoever was or was not paying the lawyer.

Secondly—without taking anything away from the Republican committee members’ own foolishness and bad faith—the primary fault for their execrable performance does not lie with them. Here is why.

Think of a litigable case as a situation where the facts can be viewed in two different ways:

  • Do the facts show us a conspiracy, or do they just show a lot of separate actors?
  • Does this picture show a goblet, or do you see two heads and a white space between them?

In short, a litigable case—as distinguished from a hopeless case—is a case where there are two different explanations for a set of facts, and each explanation is at least semi-plausible.

Even if the House Republicans were not a bunch of incompetent buffoons, they were just not in a position to construct a semi-plausible defense for Donald J. Trump. Ignorant of the facts, and ignorant of what explanation Trump would eventually embrace, they could not, for example, offer an alternative explanation for the $35,000 check he signed. Cohen said it was to reimburse a hush money payment. What was their answer? That the check was actually for some other service rendered? That Cohen had manufactured a bogus document? That Trump did reimburse the hush money payment, but so what?

It was up to Trump’s defense counsel to develop such a case, and it was up to the Republican spokesbots to defend the case. But even the most faithful spokesbot cannot effectively defend a non-existent case.

So, what do we have? Massive malpractice on the part of Trump’s legal team?

Well, yes. But, more importantly, we have a legal team that cannot construct a semi-plausible legal defense because their client won’t let them. And he won’t let them because he still believes he can bullshit and lie his way out of any predicament. That is Trump’s central character flaw, and, as the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board instructs us this morning, character is indeed destiny:

The day was above all a reminder that Americans elected a President in 2016 who had spent decades in the sleazier corners of New York business and tabloid life. He surrounded himself with political rogues like Mr. Stone, legal hustlers like Mr. Cohen, and even brought in a Beltway bandit from central casting, Paul Manafort, as his campaign chairman for a time.

Republicans knew all this when they nominated Mr. Trump, and now he and the GOP will pay a political price as Democrats marinate in that blue past in hearing after hearing. Character does matter, especially in Presidents.