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As Trump’s advocate, Stefanik steps into limelight

Rep. Elise Stefanik (Official congressional photo)

The House of Representatives’ inquiry into whether to impeach President Donald Trump is a crucial moment for this country. It’s not a “circus,” or something to ignore. Whether you think it’s warranted or whether you think Democrats are just trying to overturn the 2016 election — and/or influence the 2020 one — it’s serious and real.

Trump has run rampant through rules and ethical traditions for his entire presidency, and before. His eagerness to upset the apple cart and hurt opponents is a big reason people like him. But at what point does that kind of aggressive behavior deserve consequences?

The U.S. Constitution mentions only one consequence — removal from office, by impeachment in the House and trial in the Senate. It is one of the only checks or balances set against the president.

Do Trump’s offenses rise to the level of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” which the Constitution sets as the standard for impeachment? That’s the question we face.

The big local news angle on this process is that our North Country congresswoman, Rep. Elise Stefanik, is playing a starring role.

Stefanik used to walk a fine line regarding Trump. She said she agreed with him on some things, such as increased military spending, and disagreed with him on others, such as trade wars, climate change, and the sexism and racism that have come out of his mouth and appeared on his Twitter feed.

That cafeteria approach frustrated many people. Some thought Trump either deserved strong support in fighting to save America from socialist hedonism, or strong opposition because he was a corrupt jerk leading us toward fascism. Black or white — you must choose.

Others thought it was sensible for a swing-district Republican to walk the line and tout herself as bipartisan and pragmatic — which Stefanik did.

She’s not walking that line so much anymore.

She says she’s convinced the president did nothing impeachable in temporarily withholding congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine and then asking that country’s president to do him a “favor” and investigate the son of one of his top political rivals in the 2020 presidential campaign. She has been using this constitutional crisis to raise money, asking supporters to help her “fight off” the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry by donating to her reelection campaign.

And there she was on TV Wednesday and Friday, doing just that — and catapulting herself into national visibility.

She was not playing the role of juror. Maybe no one in Congress really is, but she, more than most, is playing the role of lawyer for the president.

The top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, tried to defer his time to her, implying she could make the case better than he could. She was tweeting the whole time, and the White House and Trump tweeted her praises Friday. She became a top trending topic on Twitter.

Not all of that attention is favorable. Much of it will energize opposition to her in next year’s election.

Nevertheless, her national profile went way up. She became the voice of the Republican Party’s main points against impeachment and the chief challenger of Democratic committee Chairman Adam Schiff. She effectively nailed him on inconsistencies, but some of her lines of questioning suggest arguments that don’t really hold up to logic.

On Friday, she emphasized that U.S. investigations into Hunter Biden’s Ukraine business dealings began when Barack Obama was president — true, but Obama did try not to gain something for himself from them.

On Wednesday Stefanik said the two most important facts for Americans to know are that Ukraine eventually got the aid and that no investigation into the Bidens was conducted. That’s the “Sideshow Bob” defense, named for “The Simpsons” villain who said, “Hah! Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?”

“This rhetorical absurdity, originally intended as a joke on a TV cartoon, is now being trotted out in all seriousness by the GOP,” TV writer and producer Bill Oakley, the show runner for that 1994 episode, wrote in Thursday’s Washington Post.

Instead of asking whether it is wrong for a U.S. president to ATTEMPT to pressure another nation’s president into helping him win reelection — even if Trump wasn’t able to pull it off — the real question should be whether the actual deed is impeachable. A president who either attempts or succeeds in committing “high crimes and misdemeanors” is a danger to our republic, and impeachment is the only prescribed way to deal with that.

It is interesting that Stefanik still takes exception to some of Trump’s comments. Amid Friday’s impeachment hearing, she said she disagreed with Trump’s Twitter insults against the witness, a former U.S. ambassador whom Stefanik called “a public servant.” Yet Stefanik said Trump’s tweets weren’t intimidation because they didn’t deter the ambassador from answering the questions.

Attempted intimidation apparently doesn’t count.

Stefanik was a loyal Republican foot soldier long before she ever came to the North Country to run for Congress. Now she has moved up to the party’s vanguard. Her intelligence, discipline and preparedness are undeniable. It’s fascinating to see her blow up on social media.

But as with many defense lawyers, her achievements are limited by the quality of the defendant.

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