Losing & Gagging
Today was a day for firsts. But not the sort of important accomplishments we usually associate with that sort of label. It was a day for sad firsts, further evidence of the damage Donald Trump has done and continues to do to our country. Today was the first time a (thankfully former) American president behaved in such an outrageous manner as a defendant in a civil lawsuit that a judge entered a gag order against him. And it was the first time a Speaker of the House was removed by a motion to vacate.
It’s inexplicable that the Republican party continues to entertain the serious prospect that Trump will be their nominee for 2024. It is as though—and this is something I’m sure all of us think frequently—we have gone through the looking glass, as though we’re living in a broken timeline. It continues to feel, even after all of this time, somehow surreal.
With little fanfare (and none of the warning federal Judge Tanya Chutkan has provided Trump with in the District of Columbia case), New York state Judge Arthur Engoron slapped Donald Trump with a gag order this afternoon. The Judge entered the order after Trump posted on Truth Social about the Judge’s law clerk. The Judge said, “consider this statement a gag order forbidding all parties from posting, emailing or speaking publicly about any of my staff.”
What precipitated the order? It was this post. Trump insinuated, based on the sort of photo many people take with politicians, that Judge Engoron’s law clerk was New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s girlfriend. He had no basis whatsoever for making that salacious, untrue allegation. Allison Greenfield, according to her Linkedin bio, has been Judge Engoron’s principal law clerk for almost five years. She is a graduate of Cardozo Law School and NYU, and a former senior counsel in the New York City Law Department. Far from “running the case,” she works for the Judge.
Judge Engoron, in a no-nonsense fashion, ensured the post was removed. He admonished everyone in the courtroom, meaning it, of course, for Trump, that “personal attacks on members of my court staff are unacceptable, inappropriate, and I will not tolerate them in any circumstances.” In case that wasn’t clear enough, he put it down where the hogs could get it, saying, “Failure to abide by this order will result in serious sanctions.”
Typical sanctions in a civil case can include things like penalties that must be paid to the court or excluding evidence. In an extreme case, a party could be held in contempt and even placed in custody until the contempt is cured. But especially in a civil case, a defendant would have to work very hard to get there. Calling out the bully should be enough. A wise man would take the warning, but this, of course, is Trump. That means it is undoubtedly not the last time we will discuss gag orders. One hopes we will not have to have that conversation because someone has been harmed by Trump’s careless, dangerous, words. The Judge is, no doubt, also acutely aware of that risk. Trump would also be wise not to test what seems to be the conventional wisdom in some quarters—that a former president cannot be jailed—in front of Judge Engoron after today.
Today was also the first time a Speaker of the House has been voted out of office on a motion to vacate. It was, in many ways, the inevitable outcome of the deal McCarthy cut to become Speaker in the first place, the deal he cut with the devil that is the MAGA caucus.
McCarthy was often one to talk big with little to back it up, especially as he sought to stay on Donald Trump’s good side. This tweet certainly didn’t play out for him. The MAGA caucus took him up on it and “brought it,” removing McCarthy from the speakership. In hindsight, McCarthy will have to ask himself if less than a year as Speaker was worth enduring 15 votes to get there, followed by today’s humiliation. McCarthy, in his farewell address, blamed it on…Democrats.
Trump’s MAGA caucus demonstrated today, for anyone who still has doubts, that they lack any interest in governing. They are the party of Trump and of Steve Bannon, interested in burning down the house. But for what? For fun? For pleasure? Certainly not for the American people. Because the mayhem in this Congress does not serve anyone, and even in a Congress all too often marked by gridlock and dysfunction in recent years, it is exceptional.
Democrats were unified today in their refusal to help Republicans sort out their mess. They declined to support McCarthy when their Republican colleagues reached out and asked them to save McCarthy. And why should they? Save Kevin McCarthy, who said Trump was responsible for January 6 but backtracked after going hat in hand to Mar-a-lago? Vote for the simpering sycophant who could only be offered as a good choice by comparison to the likes of Gaetz, Bobert and Greene? The Democrats stood in unity today and voted, not against McCarthy but for decency, honesty, and trustworthiness in government. McCarthy stood for none of these things, nor for the fundamental rights of all people to participate equally in our democracy. Republican suggestions that Democrats should vote for him was gaslighting, pure and simple. It was an effort to suggest that McCarthy was worthy of the Speakership. He was not.
What comes next? Could it be worse than McCarthy? The truth here is this—Republicans have created the monster that tolerates Trump and his extreme allies. It’s up to them to fix it. Might they put up a candidate moderate Democrats could help elect? They could. But in a time where “unity tickets” have been touted for the presidency and working across the aisle to advance the country could be a positive outreach from the party responsible for the problems, nothing is less likely. It seems far more probably that the successor offered for McCarthy will be someone more divisive and less willing to play the role the Founding Fathers intended for the House of Representatives. For now, North Carolina Republican Patrick McHenry will serve as Speaker pro tempore, an interim role that permits him only to wield the gavel to oversee the election of a new speaker. Predictably there are already whispers—one came in the form of a Fox News report that Sean Hannity was saying it—that Trump would be the next Speaker.
Today’s vote ended with the pronouncement that the office of the speaker “is hereby declared vacant.” The path that took them there was a first. Or to be more precise, another first for the party of Trump. The twice impeached, four times indicted, civilly liable sexual abuser who somehow became the new leader of what was once the party of Reagan set the beat. His was an administration marked by firsts, among them:
A son-in-law who couldn’t get a security clearance without intervention serving as a “senior advisor” in the White House and reading the President’s Daily Brief.
An unprecedented investigation that concluded Trump had obstructed an investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with our elections.
Numerous violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits political activity by public officials on the government’s time or nickel, which the President, instead of disciplining, ignored when he wasn’t encouraging them.
And elected officials supporting an effort to overturn the presidential election, which numerous Republican officials did in ways big and small in the days leading up to January 6.
And now, even beyond the four years of the Trump administration, additional firsts, including the office of the Speaker of the House, now vacant because the incumbent was voted out.
It’s the people’s House, not Trump’s House, but Republicans created the beast who is now tearing them apart. They have enabled, and even celebrated, his deplorable behavior. Now, it seems, it will be up to the judiciary, both state and federal, to draw the line. Just as they did following the election, when judge after judge, including some Trump appointed, rejected his claims of election fraud.
The Founding Fathers, whose views on the best system of government developed in systems characterized by corrupt leaders and powerful kings, knew what they were doing when they created a three-branch system of government with checks and balances. They understood the risk that a self-serving leader might risk to stay in power one day and knew that there had to be ways of keeping that person in check. Trump tried to blow up that system. He was entranced by notions like the “unitary executive”—an all powerful president who could take charge, or the “independent state legislature theory,” thankfully rejected by the Supreme Court last term, that would have let state legislatures override the will of the people in elections with no possibility of judicial review. Perhaps instinctively understanding that a system of checks and balances was inimical to his personal survival, Trump sought to undercut public confidence in all three branches of government when it served him and to damage key democratic institutions that are essential to our country’s stability with his careless accusations and American-carnage-style rhetoric.
All of that comes to a head in this moment—the effort to destroy versus the effort to sustain and nourish. The outcome is not certain, but to be an American means to have hope in the aspirational, to believe that we can persevere and move past difficulties. In some ways, the responsibility for the future is on the shoulders of a very small group of people. But in reality, the burden is for all of us to carry, not just the judges who must hold Trump to account or the Democratic legislators who refused to support a politician who wanted the Speaker’s title so much that he debased the office. All of us have a solemn duty to stay informed, to prepare for the upcoming elections, to get engaged in local and national politics. Democracy hangs, quite literally, in the balance, and we continue to have important work to do.
We’re in this together,