Happy impunity month, Mr. President!

The “January exception” is a brilliant coinage, but it may be no match for the Big Lie

Rep. Jamie Raskin’s slide about the “January exception,” presented during his opening remarks in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, Feb. 9, 2021. Apparently wasn’t supposed to be a thing.

Say you’re an American president who commits what the House considers a high crime at the last possible second of your term, so late that a Senate controlled by your party manages to delay an impeachment trial till after you leave office. Is it now unconstitutional to try you, since you are no longer president? Senators who wish to defend you may argue yes. If so, they are effectively arguing for a holiday in the impeachability of presidents: a get-out-of-jail-free period in which anything goes, and in which there is no means to hold you to account. Welcome to the “January exception.”

The January exception, as proposed by constitutional law professor and lead House impeachment manager Rep. Jamie Raskin as he kicked off Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial on the Senate floor this week, is a slyly strategic piece of rhetoric. The term implies a fundamental question: Do you favor the January exception? To which there can be only one good answer: Of course not. “Everyone can see immediately why this is so dangerous,” Raskin said on Tuesday, in the course of his opening remarks about Trump’s alleged incitement of rioters trying to overturn the election at the Capitol last month. “It’s an invitation to the President to take his best shot at anything he may want to do on his way out the door, including using violent means to lock that door, to hang onto the Oval Office at all costs, and to block the peaceful transfer of power. In other words, the January exception is an invitation to our founders’ worst nightmare.” 

Construing this temporary impunity as an “exception” suggests it is unfair, an example of preferential treatment. While “American exceptionalism” is seductive—we are a special and superior country, not one of your plain old generic countries!—and while we all hope traffic cops or mean bureaucrats will make an exception for us, the “January exception” is calculated to raise the hackles of anyone who in their own life has to play by the rules. We don’t get to commit crimes at work on Friday afternoons just because the week is almost over, and if we pull a bank heist and make our getaway before the cops come, we don’t get to keep the cash. That’s not how law enforcement works. We know we don’t have recourse to impunity, and this term prompts indignation that Donald Trump somehow might.

As persuasive as this might be, though, there’s one problem. January as a free square for high crimes is not an argument in good faith. It’s the president’s lawyers offering whatever explanation will help give cover to Republican senators who virtually never oppose Trump’s wishes, and who know his enduring popularity in their party means they risk being primaried if they break formation. This week, Raskin and other House impeachment managers delivered a gripping, ultra-professional multimedia presentation on how insurrectionists prompted by Trump overran the Capitol, killed and wounded police, and came within minutes of catching fleeing members of Congress, their families, and Vice President Mike Pence. It was a terrifying story—a real-life horror movie, as James Poniewozik wrote for the New York Times, with footage of sinister singsong calls for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and men in tactical gear silently springing through windows. Yet for practical purposes, this, too, may not matter.

This week, as I thought about this trial’s rhetorical challenges, I came across a prescient essay by George Lakoff, the brilliant linguistics professor (and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! as well as the deliciously titled Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) who in the early 2000s popularized the central importance of political framing, or establishing the terms of the debate. In the summer of 2016, four months before Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton, he published an piece called “Understanding Trump” that does a remarkable job explaining his broad appeal and Trump’s astute deployment of what are now commonly known as Big Lies, or lies so large they seems like they could not possibly be false. (Who coined that term, now common          shorthand on on CNN and MSNBC for Trump’s claim to have won an election he lost? None other than that notable theorist of propaganda, Adolf Hitler.)

It’s worth reading Lakoff’s piece in full, since it so neatly pins down why Trump lends a certain kind of American “a sense of self-respect, authority, and the possibility of power.” But his warning about Trump’s long-term impact resonates in particular. “Even if he loses the election,” Lakoff wrote, “Trump will have changed the brains of millions of Americans, with future consequences. It is vitally important people know the mechanisms used to transmit Big Lies and to stick them into people’s brains without their awareness. It is a form of mind control.”

Trump did not lose that election. He won, and some of the “future consequences” that Lakoff foresaw came to pass on January 6. We still don’t know how to contend with a world where a sizable percentage of Americans have departed from the real-life narrative we saw so painstakingly documented on the Senate floor this week. The concept of a January exception may be laughable, but for certain senators it’s worth embracing, if it keeps the true believers on their side.

What to read

The “pandemic wall,” as in the one that all of us periodically hit these days, is real, and here is a Washington Post story about it. Here is another Washington Post story about the pandemic wall for teens—the YA pandemic wall, if you will. I’m seeing so many friends and loved ones cycle through this bad place occasionally, whether they are having a run of what anyone would consider tragedy and misfortune or feel like they ought to consider themselves lucky and don’t know why they feel so stuck/anxious/bummed out/quarrelsome etc. The whole situation sucks and you are feeling bad because it’s bad, but we need to try to get through these next couple months together toward spring and mass vaccination. Think about what small or large things you can do to extend yourself to your community, and also what kindness and grace you can show yourself.

This is still a wild sentence to read in a long cover feature for a mainstream glossy magazine in 2021: “Every person I interviewed for this story is an LGBTQ+ professional (or formerly pro) woman athlete.” That story, by Emma Carmichael, is about power sports couple Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird, and it’s on the front of GQ. What would the men’s fashion wholesalers who were the audience for Gentlemen’s Quarterly at its start in 1931 think of this fiesta of hot queer lady athlete romance? I do not venture to guess. Based on this cover shoot, Rapinoe and Bird appear to have an easier time acquiring Olympic medals than they do shirts. Perhaps those early readers could have assisted them.

Boy, did I not enjoy working in the neighborhood west of Penn Station, and it was not just the hour-long subway commute that culminated in walking a mile through construction sites while eight months pregnant in 90-degree weather. But Rivka Galchen makes what is at least a provocative case in the New Yorker for this much-loathed area of Manhattan as a family neighborhood. I’m not convinced, but her love for it is weirdly poignant. An even harder place to live, of course, is on the subway itself. The New York Times took a look this week at the people who normally take refuge overnight there in winter and who now, thanks to MTA overnight closures, have now been pushed to the street.

What to consume

We went apple-picking on a muddy red-clay hill in absolutely torrential rain this past fall, a dangerous family quarantine experience I recommend, and our haul set off a cycle of making vast quantities of homemade applesauce, which is somehow way more delicious than storebought applesauce and contains basically one ingredient. Do this if you have a lot of apples in the fridge that have gone a little soft or if you can come by a big bunch on sale (or on trees, when there are things besides snow on trees again). A mix of different kinds is great, and redder apples will make pinker sauce. Slice and core the apples (I have a nifty apple corer/slicer thingy for this), throw the chunks into a big heavy-bottomed pot with a few cinnamon sticks and about a quarter inch of water in the bottom, bring to a boil briefly, and then simmer, covered, for an hour or two, stirring occasionally. Once the apples have broken down, pull out the cinnamon sticks and find something to smush the sauce through to remove the peels and anything else indigestible—I use a little baby food mill that a friend gave me and do a few spoonfuls at a time, which is messy and silly but effective. The sauce freezes really well, but you’ll probably eat it before that’s necessary. All credit to my mom, whose pink applesauce was a staple in our house.

Finally, I want to give a shoutout to the best thing that happened this week, and possibly the best thing since the beginning of this pandemic: the arrival of Oscar John Charles Katz, my new nephew. Welcome, little guy. We are so glad to have you.

May you avoid committing any high crimes or misdemeanors this week, and I’ll see you next time.