The road leading to President Donald Trump’s acquittal from charges of which he is plainly guilty is littered with a trail of public figures selling their souls and abandoning their consciences. Few have been more dispiriting, however, than retired law professor Alan Dershowitz, whose reputation imploded in national view during Trump’s impeachment trial, all seemingly because of an unquenchable thirst for limelight. Dershowitz’s embarrassing performance in the service of a corrupt president who positively basks in a totalitarian’s view of his own power (speaking of the Constitution, he said, “I have an Article 2, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president”) left Dershowitz looking like a sad and simple toady, so enthralled by media attention that he is willing to say anything for anyone in order to get it.
From its outset, the Trump presidency provided Dershowitz the welcome opportunity for attention, and he has taken advantage of it. He has been ubiquitous on cable television, sounding somewhere between silly and ridiculous on the president’s behalf, arguing that the poor beleaguered Trump was being persecuted by those bent on trampling his civil liberties. As impeachment proceedings got underway, Dershowitz found himself in increasing demand and was tapped to be on Trump’s defense team, an appointment he appeared to relish. His pitch: However accurately the articles of impeachment passed by the House summarize Trump’s conduct, Trump cannot be impeached because he has not committed a statutory crime. Before you could say, “egg on his face,” a clip surfaced of Dershowitz proclaiming the precise opposite with equal self-assurance in 1999. “It certainly doesn’t have to be a crime,” Dershowitz had said. “If you have somebody who completely corrupts the office of the president and who abuses trust and who poses great danger to our liberty, you don’t need a technical crime.”
Faced with this direct contradiction from his own lips, Dershowitz launched a series of cringeworthy “clarifications” that damaged his credibility further. “I wasn’t wrong. I have a more sophisticated basis for my argument,” he explained to one interviewer. “I didn’t do research back then. I relied on what professors said,” he told another. “I am much more correct right now,” he insisted to a third, a line that may live on for its hubris and its inanity.
From there, Dershowitz proceeded to the well of the Senate to declare on behalf of President Trump that Trump could demand whatever he wanted of whomever he wanted as long as he believed it would get him reelected. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” announced Dershowitz. This concept of American democracy evoked Mussolini more than Jefferson. Once again, Dershowitz tried to backtrack, falsely denying what he had said and then accusing those who had heard him of “distortion.”
In his needy zeal for the spotlight, Dershowitz has self-eviscerated, eliminating his credibility on an issue that, one imagines, matters more to him than Trump does. For decades, Dershowitz has ably made the progressive case for Israel, challenging its critics on the left and arguing, frequently under fire, that those who genuinely care about democratic values should regard Israel, which has broadly preserved those values, with respect, rather than hatred. Dershowitz’s unprincipled defense of the attempted dismantling of democracy by a president contemptuous of it has served to decommission him as an advocate for Israel; his association with Israel hurts Israel, rather than helps it, which is too bad for it and too bad for him.
In fairness, Donald Trump has had quite a team of enablers, and Dershowitz is far from the only one who has contributed to our crisis by letting his country down. He is a reminder of how much, and how quickly, work needs to be done to restore our nation to the one we once took for granted.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.