Reporter’s Notebook: DC turmoil echoes life before coronavirus pandemic

I need to find Rip Van Winkle – presuming he hasn’t tested positive for coronavirus.

Hopefully, ol’ Rip has been asleep since late December and just stirred out of his slumber over the past few days. Rip would know that the House of Representatives impeached President Trump and that a Senate impeachment trial loomed in early 2020. Depending on when he dozed off in late-2019, it’s doubtful Rip would have heard any vague reports about some strange, powerful virus – ala swine flu or Ebola – somewhere in Wuhan, China.

To get Rip up to speed, I’d show him some select headlines from the past week. I’d be choosy. Rip would never know the world had plummeted into a near-existential crisis. He’d be ignorant about lockdowns, the near-unprecedented, global economic downturn and cataclysmic unemployment.

Pandemic? What pandemic?

The headlines I’d show him? The tumult which unfolded in Washington this week.

House Democrats and Trump were fighting over a witness testifying on Capitol Hill. The reason? “The House is a set up. The House is a bunch of Trump haters,” the president said. “They should be ashamed of themselves. And, frankly, the Democrats should be ashamed, because they don’t want us to succeed. They want us to fail so they can win an election.”

Sounds familiar, pandemic or no pandemic.

Tara Reade charged that former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, sexually assaulted her when she worked as his Senate aide in 1993. Democrats made their voices heard when Christine Blasey Ford exhumed 36-year-old allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018, but today, most Democrats have given a very different response.

“You know, hypocrisy is not unusual in Washington, but this is jaw-dropping hypocrisy,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Fox News. “There was no corroborating evidence in the case against Justice Kavanaugh, and here, you not only have an accuser, but corroborating evidence. So, it’s interesting to watch the Democrats’, as I said, jaw-dropping hypocrisy, trying to defend the former vice president, with less evidence by far [compared to] the Kavanaugh case.”

See? Business as usual in Washington, Democrats and Republicans sniping at each other, the White House and Congressional Democrats trading snarky barbs.

I mean, nothing else is going on, right Rip? Things are back to normal.

Last Thursday crystallized how the pre-virus news cycle was back. First, the Justice Department halted its prosecution of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Two hours later, the House Intelligence Committee dumped some 6,000 pages of documents from more than 50 transcribed, top-secret interviews as part of the Russia investigation in 2017.

It was like the band was back together.

First, there were closed-door transcripts. I mean, we haven’t seen a document dump like that since last fall during impeachment. Then, consider who was in the document dump: Steve Bannon, Michael Cohen, Jeff Sessions, even John Podesta, Loretta Lynch and James Clapper.

And, everyone sprinted to their respective corners on cue late Thursday.

Democrats were apoplectic at Attorney General William Barr and the Flynn case.

“The decision to drop the charges against Gen. Flynn is outrageous,” charged House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. “And now, a politicized and thoroughly corrupt Department of Justice is going to let the president’s crony simply walk away.”

“The attorney general’s politicization of justice knows no bounds,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “Attorney General Barr’s Justice Department is dropping the case to continue the cover-up for the president.”

Rip might presume this had something to do with that impeachment trial. I bet he’d wonder how that turned out.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., then released the Russia investigation transcripts.

Republicans howled the day before, demanding Schiff publicize the documents. Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell threatened to release the transcripts himself if Schiff didn’t do it first.

A source with the Democrats suggested some gamesmanship was afoot. Some of Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill didn’t like a recent bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report which agreed with the intelligence community assessment that Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 election. Both Democrats and Republicans said they wanted the transcripts released. The committee voted to publicize the transcripts in 2018. But, Republicans snagged a few hours of news coverage, suggesting Schiff was trying to hide something. They argued information in the transcripts didn’t prove his theory of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians in 2016.

That was generally the case if you read the witness interviews from both sides.

“These transcripts today richly detail evidence of the Trump campaign’s efforts to invite, make use of, and cover up, Russia’s help in the 2016 election,” Schiff argued. “These acts ultimately led to the president’s impeachment in the House of Representatives and the first bipartisan vote in the Senate in our history in support of a conviction of the president of the United States.”

With me, Rip? You seemed like you were nodding off. You could probably swap out that quote for something you heard last fall.

On Thursday, the Senate tried to override Trump’s veto of a resolution requiring him to obtain the blessing of Congress before going top war with Iran. The Senate had approved the war-powers measure in mid-February, 55-45, but fell well short of overriding Trump’s veto.

The president called the bipartisan resolution “insulting.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., had authored the measure and fired back at Trump.

“For the president to say it is insulting for Congress to take up matters of war and peace and that we should not have passed the resolution, to me, demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of the article and branch,” said Kaine on the Senate floor. “We’re not required to play ‘mother may I?’ with the president.”

The events of last Thursday roused Trump. The House Intelligence Committee transcripts generally revealed no direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Attorney General William Barr intervened, personally halting the Flynn prosecution. The dual victory emboldened the president to go on attack against his adversaries in a way not seen since the Senate cleared him of the impeachment charges in February.

“We caught them cold,” thundered Trump, who then turned his attention to the House Intelligence Committee chairman.

“I watched Schiff, nine inches around the neck,” the president said. “I watched this guy, wears the world’s smallest collar.”

Trump asserted that if Schiff weren’t a member of Congress, “he’d be in jail.”

During an appearance on Fox News, Trump torched Pelosi. “She lost the House before, because of her stupidity. She’s highly overrated, a bad woman. She doesn’t even want to go to work. She’s in California sitting in her expensive home,” he argued.

Never mind that Pelosi has been in Washington for the better part of the past couple of weeks.

If Rip Van Winkle drifted off for a few weeks back in December, ignorant about the pandemic, he’d likely wake up thinking little had changed. Everything would seem normal in Washington with all of the fighting. The only thing new: the murder hornet.

Rip would awake to find Washington involved in the same, typical, partisan brawling that was going on before he dozed off. To read the news of late last week, Van Winkle may never realize the world’s in the grips of a pandemic. Could that be so hard to believe, considering the nastiness of the invective?

Would he even believe there was a pandemic? Or, would he have a harder time believing that Washington was back to normal?

There’s only thing Rip Van Winkle wouldn’t believe: the fact that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was in a Twitter fight with Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose.

Yeah. Right.

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