While watching Saturday’s events in the U.S. Senate and the gamut of public reaction to them, I thought about the disconnect that takes place between the reality of events and the way they’re perceived from the outside looking in, especially by the media.
Back in the fall of 2007, I was elected president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and within days was on a plane to Los Angeles where contract negotiations were ongoing between the Writers Guilds East and West and the studios and networks. The talks broke down. Thrown into the deep end of the pool, I was suddenly one of the leaders of an ultimately successful 100-day strike that made headlines around the world. It ended in February 2008, exactly thirteen years ago this week.
I can tell you from personal experience that being at the center of a major news story can be humbling. There are moments of excitement and drama for sure, but it can be discomforting and disorienting as well, and quite revealing when it comes to human nature and the foibles of journalism. Few really understand what it’s like to be in the vortex of a news storm.
As a journalist myself, I was stunned on a daily basis by how much misinformation about both the negotiations and the strike was reported by the media, almost all of whom had little or no access to what really was going on behind closed doors—and so relied too much on embellishment, baseless speculation, cherry-picking facts and an overdependence on selective leaks from both sides.
A minor example but one reflective of the problem: At one point early on in the strike, a major Hollywood agent arranged for negotiators to meet secretly at an undisclosed location away from the press—in the hope that our isolation would create some sort of breakthrough.
In truth, we were at a hotel and the secret held. Unfortunately, no progress was made and the strike continued. But a few days later, a reporter wrote a story about the failed talks and proudly announced that he knew precisely where we all had been hiding.
He then proceeded to name the wrong hotel.
This kind of thing, although it may seem trivial, always makes me worry about my own reporting and commentary, the fear that I’m always just about to make some great clanking error or misinterpret the facts. It’s happened before. And while in pieces like this I’m not hesitant to pass judgement, to express my own opinion and beliefs, I’m always just a bit wary when journalists or anyone active in social media announce that they know exactly what was going on in various individual’s minds and in closed-door meetings.
Often they do, and sometimes they don’t. But despite uncertainty, none of this stops many from jumping up and down in anger and righteous indignation when a decision occurs that they don’t like, even if—knowingly or not—they’ve twisted what really happened.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying I’m uneasy categorizing just what went down Saturday in the U.S. Senate chamber and the adjoining cloakroom and conference and caucus areas. Why did the Senate pass a bill to call witnesses in the trial of Donald Trump, only to scrap the idea in exchange for reading into the record a statement from Washington State’s Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler?
Granted, it was an important piece of evidence. During the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, she was told by House minority leader Kevin McCarthy about a frenzied phone call he just had had with President Trump. “Kevin, they’re not my people,” Trump lied.
“Yes, they are,” McCarthy replied. “They just came through my windows and my staff is running for cover. Yeah, they’re your people. Call them off.”
McCarthy’s plea for help was rebuffed by Trump who allegedly said, “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.”
At the same time, Trump was tweeting attacks on Vice President Pence for not overthrowing the results of the Electoral College in the presidential election. Constitutionally, Pence could not have done so even if he wanted, but Trump’s taunts were feeding the ugly mob’s desire to hang Pence for treason. He was evacuated from the Capitol with minutes if not seconds to spare.
At the end of her statement, Congresswoman Herrera Beutler said, “To the patriots who were standing next to the former president as these conversations were happening, or even to the former vice president: if you have something to add here, now would be the time.”
Crickets. That’s all that she and the Democratic impeachment managers heard in return, which may be one of the reasons Democrats retreated on the call for witnesses. It’s said that people close to Vice President Pence who had been approached by impeachment managers about testifying suddenly “went cold” and disappeared or refused to get involved. And we know that McCarthy himself soon was running off to Trump begging forgiveness for telling the truth, a cardinal sin.
There were other problems—some Republicans threatened to sabotage any attempt to pass any of Joe Biden’s legislation or make confirmations if the trial continued and Trump’s defense team said it might call hundreds of witnesses if the Democrats called even one or two—a hollow threat but indicative of a truth—that summoning witnesses could have extended the trial for weeks, even months. As per Mike DeBonis and Tom Hamburger at The Washington Post: “It was not a standard trial where evidentiary motions could play out for months with no ill effects. Senate Democrats, not yet a month into their majority, were eager to get on with President Biden’s agenda, and extending the trial could alienate the small group of Republicans who had signaled they might convict. And calling any witness promised to be an extended affair: The trial rules called for a deposition process to precede any Senate testimony, and there was the possibility witnesses could go to court and further extend the timeline.”
Democrats were attacked from the left for caving on witnesses and from the right who denounced this legitimate prosecution of Trump’s incitement of the assault. Already the conspiracy mill, including Wisconsin’s appalling Senator Ron Johnson and others, is ginning up stories that range from assertions that the January 6 attack wasn’t really all that dangerous, or that it was antifa infiltrators that caused the trouble, or that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi held back security to allow the riot to happen and make Trump and Republicans look bad.
You see what I mean—from the outside looking in, you can put all manner of spin to reality. The late Pat Moynihan said you can have your own opinions but not your own facts—sadly, in this media-laden world that’s no longer the case. The truth is out there, alright—way, way out there for some. Moynihan’s adage has given way to Mark Twain’s “Get your facts first, then you can distort ‘em as you please.” Or the quotation from Voltaire that Democratic head impeachment manager Jamie Raskin used in his closing argument: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
No matter who, what or why, the Democrats, led by legal wizard Raskin, presented an impeccable, airtight case for Trump’s guilt. Not even Trump’s lawyers or the Republican senators who lounged about the chamber doodling and texting as if they were juvenile delinquents in detention hall could counter the effectiveness and truth of the prosecution’s evidence and arguments. That seven GOP members voted guilty was both proof and a miracle on the order of loaves and fishes—but under the current circumstances there was no route to a two-thirds majority in favor of officially convicting Trump and denying him further government work.
In the words of former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, “The 57–43 margin wasn’t enough to convict under the Constitution. It wasn’t enough to formally disqualify Trump from ever again seeking office in the United States.” And yet, he continued, “It will do as a solemn and eternal public repudiation of Trump’s betrayal of his oath of office…
“It’s not half against half. It’s a clear American majority—including a sizable part of the Republican Senate caucus—against a minority. And even many of the senators who voted to acquit went on record to condemn Trump as an outlaw and a seditionist.”
Which brings us to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, the man who claimed the impeachment trial was unconstitutional because Trump was no longer president—a situation McConnell himself created by delaying the proceedings until after Joe Biden’s swearing in. It’s so typical of the man who in 2016 refused Barack Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court because it was an election year but then turned around in 2020 and forced through the confirmation of Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
When it comes to scruples, Mitch has been running on empty for decades; his lust for power is his fossil fuel. On Saturday, McConnell voted to acquit Donald Trump but minutes later made a speech condemning Trump as “practically and morally responsible for provoking the events” of January 6: “The people who stormed this building believed they were acting on the wishes and instruction of their president. And their having that belief was a foreseeable consequence of the growing crescendo of false statements, conspiracy theories, and reckless hyperbole which the defeated president kept shouting into the largest megaphone on planet Earth. The issue is not only the president’s intemperate language on January 6… It was also the entire manufactured atmosphere of looming catastrophe, the increasingly wild myths about a reverse landslide election that was somehow being stolen by some secret coup by our now-president.”
Quite a speech, or it would have been had McConnell shown the moral fortitude on Saturday to vote against Trump. Every once in a while I hope there’s still a molecule of decency somewhere in his turtle soul, a sliver of the young man who interned for Kentucky’s legendary Senator John Sherman Cooper, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, collective bargaining and campaign finance reform. But no.
To paraphrase that old Statler Brothers song, Mitch has been trying to have his Kate and Edith, too. At this he usually excels. He came out swinging in his speech against Trump, his rival for control of the national GOP, but by choosing acquittal simultaneously tried not to completely alienate the rabid Trump base which has been snapping at the heels of the seven Republicans who voted to convict.
(Louisiana and North Carolina Republicans already have censured their GOP senators who supported Trump’s conviction and Pennsylvania’s Washington County Republican chair Dave Ball attacked that state’s Senator Pat Toomey with the deathless pronouncement, “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to do the right thing or whatever he said he was doing.” I’m not making this up.)
But if McConnell thought that his vote to acquit might cut him some slack, he had a rude awakening. On Tuesday, Trump went after him with his patented, pistol-packing petulance, declaring, “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.” Oh snap.
Politico reported, “A person familiar with the crafting of the statement confirmed that it could have been far worse. An earlier draft mocked McConnell for having multiple chins, the person said.”
Multiple chins. God help us, the Mar-a-Lago Mean Girl is back and open for business.
But sticks and stones, etc. For one thing, President Biden is doing a deft job of rising above it, staying above the fray, keeping his focus on COVID relief and beyond. For another, the lawsuits against Trump and his bad boys are well underway. Investigations in New York State, the District of Columbia and now Georgia—over the ex-president’s attempts to tamper with the state’s presidential vote—are ongoing and it’s yet to be determined how the U.S. Department of Justice will become involved, too, if at all. Biden promises to be hands off.
Nancy Pelosi and others seek an independent, bi-partisan 9/11-style commission to investigate the January 6 attack, all the people involved and events leading up to it. And you can anticipate a dumpster load of tell-all books revealing what we’ve suspected all along—that for all the things we know Trump and cohorts were doing, there was much, much worse going on. We came this close to the complete and utter destruction of American democracy and until the right-wing spell of the cult breaks, we’re still far from safe.
In the coming weeks and months, everything in the media to which you expose yourself must be carefully read, thoughtfully heard, seen and interpreted. Look out for the ways facts are manipulated, seek out those whose reporting and opinions you trust as fair. Be a critical and discerning audience, educate yourself in citizenship. Above all, journalists, readers and viewers alike need to exercise what so many claim is that most American of all qualities: common sense.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.