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Adam Schiff Summons the Damnation of History

In a fiery speech, the California Democrat warned Republican senators that they'll never be able to say they weren't told about their president's corruption.

Senate Television/Getty Images

Four years ago today, then-candidate Donald Trump lashed out at one of his foes on Twitter. His target at the time was Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who had just won the Iowa caucuses. The real estate mogul ultimately came in second place after leading in some polls before the contest. Trump did not respond to his rival’s victory with graciousness or humility. Instead, without a shred of evidence, he rejected the results and charged Cruz with electoral fraud.

“Based on the fraud committed by Senator Ted Cruz during the Iowa Caucus, either a new election should take place or Cruz results nullified,” Trump wrote in one tweet. “Ted Cruz didn’t win Iowa, he stole it,” he added in another. “That is why all of the polls were so wrong and why he got far more votes than anticipated.” Trump even urged state officials to intervene: “The State of Iowa should disqualify Ted Cruz from the most recent election on the basis that he cheateda total fraud!”

Trump’s corrosive response to his Iowa defeat came to mind on Monday when California Representative Adam Schiff took the floor to deliver his closing arguments in Trump’s impeachment trial. Over the last two weeks, Schiff and the other House managers laid out how the president was guilty of the sins that he so often attributes to others. It will likely not matter. The Republican-led Senate refused to hear from additional witnesses or seek new documents on Friday; it is virtually certain to acquit the president on both articles of impeachment on Wednesday.

Schiff, cognizant of what lay ahead, did not strike an optimistic note. “Midnight in Washington,” he declared as he began. “All too tragic a metaphor for where the country finds itself at the conclusion of only the third impeachment in history and the first impeachment trial without witnesses or documents.” Having already laid out the factual and legal case for convicting Trump, he appeared on Monday as a prophet in the wilderness to tell Republican senators in powerful terms what they were about to do.

Schiff again took aim at Alan Dershowitz’s assertion last week that a president could not be impeached for any abuse of power, no matter how egregious or self-serving. Schiff denounced the Harvard University law professor emeritus’s analysis as dangerous and absurd. “Under this theory, as long as the president believes his reelection was in the public interest, he could do anything and no quid pro quo is corrupt, no damage to national security too great,” he warned. “This was such an extreme view that even the president’s other lawyers had to run away from it.”

He also rejected claims that the electorate should decide Trump’s fate. “He is guilty, but can’t we just let the voters decide?” Schiff asked, paraphrasing Trump’s defenders. “He is guilty as sin, but why not let the voters clean up this mess? Here, to answer that question, we must look at the history of this presidency and to the character of this president, or the lack of character, and ask, can we be confident that he will not continue to try to cheat in that very election? Can we be confident Americans, and not foreign powers, will get to decide, and that the president will shun any further foreign interference in our democratic affairs?

“The short, plain, sad, incontestable answer is no, you can’t,” Schiff continued. “You can’t trust this president to do the right thing, not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change, and you know it.” It was a stark reminder that Republican senators know exactly who the president is and what they are doing by standing with him.

A common refrain among Trump’s critics is that future generations of Americans and future students of American history will condemn those who stood by this president. Perhaps in an age of secularization, the spirit of History itself fills the space that previous generations would have reserved for divine judgment and eternal damnation. In Schiff’s hands, the threat carried traces of fire and brimstone. “History will not be kind to Donald Trump,” he warned the assembled senators. “If you find that the House has proved its case, and still vote to acquit, your name will be tied to his with a cord of steel and for all of history.”

It didn’t have to be this way. Trump’s false and incendiary claims against Cruz four years ago would have marked the end of any other candidate’s career. But there would be no reckoning that day for the most reckless figure in American political life. Instead it established what would be Trump’s defining approach to electoral politics. Any contest that he wins is a historic victory that expresses the unbending will of the American people. Any race that he loses is a corrupt sham marred by fraud and misconduct. And in his eyes, the ends to secure victory always justify the means.

Cruz, for his part, spent the months after Iowa locked in a bitter fight for the nomination with Trump that he eventually lost. He then withheld his endorsement at the convention on national television, urging those assembled to vote their consciences—a justified response to a nominee who called Cruz’s wife ugly and accused his father of assassinating John F. Kennedy. Slowly but surely, the Texas senator has fallen into line. He spent most of Trump’s impeachment trial hosting a podcast, defending the president, criticizing the House managers, and wondering why Hunter Biden and Burisma weren’t getting more attention from the press.

“If you have found him guilty and you do not remove him from office, he will continue trying to cheat in the election until he succeeds,” Schiff warned senators. “Then what shall you say? What shall you say?” He did not answer his own question. But Cruz and other Republican lawmakers have already given their response: What’s in it for me?