Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Thursday afternoon, the deadly seriousness of the Senate impeachment trial gave way to a few fleeting moments of humor.
Lead impeachment manager Rep. Adam Schiff recounted how the Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed relief that Trump publicly promoted the debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for attacking the U.S. election in 2016.
“‘Putin said, ‘Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in US elections , now they’re accusing Ukraine,’” said Schiff. “‘Thank god,’ Putin said.”
And then came the punch line.
“Well, you’ve got to give Donald Trump credit for this, he has made a religious man out of Vladimir Putin,” said Schiff. A round of chuckles could be heard, which reporters in the chamber said came from Democrats.
There’s nothing funny about the reality of the uncontested facts behind Schiff’s quip. Putin has denied Russian involvement in the extensive hacking, disinformation campaigns and other forms of interference in the 2016 race. And our own president, incredibly, has repeatedly parroted the Putin line, expressing doubts about the findings of our intelligence agencies.
The president isn’t being impeached for any actions related to the 2016 election. But Schiff brought up the point to underscore the damage Trump has inflicted on national security. By withholding military aid from Ukraine, which is still fighting a war against Russia, Trump provided help to Putin, Schiff argued.
“Their world view is completely antithetical to ours,” Schiff said of the Russia. “We do not want them thanking God for our president and what he is pushing out. We don’t want them thanking God for withholding money from our ally, although we can understand why they may.”
By then, the laughter was over.
It is crucial for the Democrats’ case for Trump’s removal to establish the danger of inviting foreign interference in American elections. But partisan politics stands in the way. Republican senators appear to have decided to protect Trump at all costs, voting in lockstep on procedural questions of whether to allow new witness testimony and other evidence to be heard.
Hours after the humorous comments, Schiff tried to punch through the Republican wall in a passionate speech that closed the day’s proceedings.
After accusing Trump of believing “kooky, crazy Russian propaganda” about Ukraine, Schiff warned that the specter of foreign interference loomed over the 2020 elections.
“Let’s say [Russians] start blatantly interfering in our elections again to help Donald Trump. Can you have the least bit of confidence that Donald Trump will stand up to them and protect our national interest over his own personal interest? You know you can’t. Which makes him dangerous to this country,” said Schiff. “You know you can’t count on him. None of us can. What happens if China got the message?”
That is a serious question, given that Trump – who was impeached after he pressured the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into his political rivals – suggested in October that China do the same
China’s foreign ministry spokesman responded to Trump’s invitation to investigate the Bidens by saying, “”We have no intention of intervening [in the domestic affairs] of the United States. Our position is consistent and clear”.
But the fact that the question is on the table is the Democrats’ main argument for the immediate removal of Trump.
“You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he’ll do what’s right for Donald J. Trump,” Schiff said. “If you find him guilty, you must find that he be removed. Because right matters. And the truth matters. Otherwise we are lost.”
The hour was late. Nobody was laughing.