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GUEST COMMENTARY: Impeachment slides off the new ‘Teflon Don’ in the White House

In the spring of 1980, a boy on a mini-bike darted into the path of a neighbor’s car and died. The boy was the son of the notorious New York mobster John Gotti.

The neighbor tried in vain to apologize to the family but received only death threats in response. Just before he was to move his family away, he was abducted by several men in a van and disappeared forever. Gotti was known as “The Teflon Don” for his ability to elude conviction for tax fraud, murder and racketeering. One of the many trials that failed to convict him occurred in 1987 but was noteworthy for another reason: the jury foreman was later indicted for conspiring with the mob to “… take a bribe to engineer an acquittal.” (1)

We have just witnessed the trial of another notorious New Yorker (2), in which the jury foreman has promised “to engineer an acquittal.” The difference now being that the accused was the president of the United States, the “foreman” was the Republican Majority Leader of the United States Senate, and the jury consisted of 100 elected representatives who took oaths to uphold the Constitution and act as impartial jurors. Presumably the bribes in this trial were the avoidance of political death threats and the continuation of Republican hegemony … at any cost.

It was not just an authoritarian president or an impotent Congress on trial here. As long as America is still a representative democracy, we the people were also on trial. Like the reality show that spawned this president, we seemed to watch this impeachment trial as if we, the viewers, were separate from those being viewed. But we were not. These proceedings were not just another political drama unfolding in a marble-lined set far removed from our daily lives. Our expectations and values were as much on trial as the characters we have placed at those mahogany desks. Like the parable of the blind men vainly trying to identify the whole of the elephant only by the parts they are in touch with, our squabbles about the true nature of the beast were based solely on how our own biases filtered what little information we observed. And so we were left to trust the integrity of those 100 jurors to judge the entire body of evidence with the impartiality they took an oath to honor. The Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to defend ourselves against allegations of wrongdoing, and to be judged by an impartial jury of our peers. Tragically, and as a reminder of the mockery this president has made of the Constitution and the rule of law, the majority leader of the Senate publicly promised to betray these oaths. That a majority of Republican Senators appeared to have likewise mouthed the same oath to be impartial, while fully intending otherwise, shows the extent of democratic decay that we, the viewing public, seem willing to accept.

This was not, though, some reality show that could be turned off with the flick of a thumb. This was real life with real Constitutional consequences for all of us. Representative democracy is full of imperfections and contradictions, but our legal system presumes innocence until proven otherwise, and defines exacting legal procedures for gathering and presenting evidence of alleged wrongdoing. Prosecutors and defense attorneys go to great lengths to select jurists who meet rigorous standards of impartiality, and to provide ample evidence and witnesses to argue innocence or guilt. A truly impartial jury would be able to separate political fabrications from fact-based evidence. In light of these protections it seems ludicrous, and frankly unbelievable, for a truly innocent person to have refused to provide witnesses to their innocence, or for their defense team to argue that allegations should have been dismissed simply because the accused and accusers don’t like each other. Add to this the unconscionable specter of the jury foreman promising to engineer an acquittal. As another sign of our decaying democracy, the administration simply refused to honor legal House subpoenas for witnesses during evidence-gathering, witnesses who could have easily proven the innocence claimed by the administration. Instead, Trump refused to let them testify, accusing the House hearings of being a “kangaroo court.” Politics notwithstanding, respect for the rule of law is what is supposed to define this country. Choosing to not honor legally issued subpoenas, simply because we disagree (or even because they might prove our guilt) is not a luxury the rest of us have. Ironically, once there was an actual trial – with the Senate Majority leader openly declaring prejudicial support of the accused – there were no dismissive tweets accusing the Senate of conducting a “kangaroo court.” The whole Constitution is being ridiculed by the very people sworn to uphold it. If there really was no crime, then there’s nothing for the accused to be afraid of. Refusing to cooperate is nothing more than a fear of consequences that any parent can easily identify.

Supposedly America is special because we are a “nation of laws, not men.” If given a fair chance (and that’s a big “if” for many Americans), the innocent will go free and the guilty will be punished. Even the Teflon Don was, when the jury was adequately protected from bribery and threats, eventually found guilty. Regrettably, it seems another Teflon Don has taken his place.

Whether we agree with the motives of the evidence presented or not, if we do not challenge the blatant jury-tampering in this trial phase of impeachment, shame on us all, left, right, and center. We will have sent the message that the Constitution and the rule of law applies only to we mere citizens, not the wealthy and powerful … be they politicians or mobsters.

(John O’Neill lives in Saranac Lake.)

(1) “Jury Foreman in 1987 Gotti trial is indicted in plot to sell his vote,” Robert McFadden, Feb. 25, 1992, The New York Times.

(2) “If Donald Trump is a con man, the media are the biggest marks in history,” Joe Cunningham, Redstate, May 8, 2019