Ketanji Brown Jackson’s shattering of a racial glass ceiling, in a week also marked by the naked ambition of the Republicans who smeared her, the delusional demagoguery of an ex-President and a touch of the bizarre, reflected an historic and extreme Washington age.
Like everyone else, those in the nation’s capital will never forget the wrenching horror of images depicting atrocities perpetrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops against defenseless Ukrainian civilians.
Yet Washington’s self-absorption, and spot at the confluence of the profound and opposing political forces rocking the United States, meant that life went on as normal in the nation’s capital, in all its polarized and often absurd glory.
Most importantly, there was history. Jackson will be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court. Her Senate confirmation on Thursday repaired a prejudicial omission more than 200 years in the making.
“We’ve taken another step toward making our highest court reflect the diversity of America,” President Joe Biden said in an Instagram post that might become its own curiosity of history years into the future since he snapped a selfie of himself and Jackson after the vote.
Yet an occasion as normal – and constitutionally foreseen – as the confirmation of a future Supreme Court associate justice also came with the bitter taste of the partisanship that threatens to tear America apart.
The top Senate Republican, Mitch McConnell, who forged the safe conservative control on the high court by blocking a Democratic nominee in an election year and rushing a Republican one through in similar circumstances, refused to say whether he’d confirm another Biden pick if the GOP wins the chamber back in November.
One of McConnell’s lieutenants, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, admitted to the possibility that hyperpartisanship would again thwart yet another constitutional norm – that a President gets votes on his judicial nominees.
“I think it’s going to be hard,” Thune told CNN. “Because that’s kind of the environment we’re in right now.”
That “environment” was amply demonstrated by Thune’s colleagues during Jackson’s confirmation process.
While praising her intellect and family – apparently to avoid being seen as showing disrespect to a historic racial pioneer – they falsely branded her as an enabler of child sex offenders even though her sentencing record was well within the mainstream. Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton even claimed she would have been lenient toward Nazi war criminals. Cotton, Sen Ted Cruz of Texas and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley all clearly had an eye on future presidential campaign ads with their histrionic attacks on her judicial record.
Unity (mostly) on Russia but Trump looms large
At times like these, it’s notable when Washington agrees on anything.
But the Senate unanimously passed two bills to punish Russia for invading Ukraine. The House voted 420-3 and 413-9 to do the same. Only three representatives, Republicans Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Matt Gaetz of Florida – fervent Donald Trump supporters – voted against both bills.
It might seem a no-brainer to condemn an invasion that has caused some of the most heinous atrocities in Europe since World War II. Yet the hangover of the ex-President’s hero worship for Putin – and the reason why some European leaders fear a second Trump term – was in evidence earlier this week when 63 House members voted against a boilerplate bill expressing support for NATO.
Another aspect of Trump’s legacy that still haunts Capitol Hill is his incitement of the terrifying assault by his supporters on January 6, 2021, designed to thwart the congressional certification of Biden’s free and fair election victory the previous November.
In an interview with The Washington Post from his political exile in Mar-a-Lago, the ex-President said the Secret Service didn’t allow him to march to the Capitol on that day with his supporters. And he repeatedly blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the violence, even though she is not responsible for security at the Capitol – or the Trump supporters who stormed it.
Trump also expanded on the flagrant lies about a stolen election, which are intensifying his threat to democracy since millions of his supporters believe them. In an extraordinary comment, which raised questions about Trump’s grip on reality, he expressed surprise that he had not been reinstated as President because of “massive election fraud.”
“How has it not happened? If you are a bank robber, or you’re a jewelry store robber, and you go into Tiffany’s and you steal their diamonds and get caught, you have to give the diamonds back,” he told the Post.
Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, rejected his false claims about a stolen election. And multiple courts threw out his flurry of spurious cases on the grounds they contained no evidence of electoral irregularities.
The House select committee investigating the insurrection, and Trump’s role in it, is racing against time because if Republicans win the House in November’s midterm elections, they are almost certain to shut it down.
Such is the altered reality of Washington in the post-Trump age that recent virtual testimony by the daughter and son-in-law of a President who mounted a coup attempt didn’t cause that much of a stir. But news that the Justice Department is investigating the handling of White House records – including classified material – taken to Mar-a-Lago by the Trump team underscored the dark shadow of the ex-President’s legacy. As did a request by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, for Trump to be held in contempt of court for allegedly refusing to comply with an order to hand over documents in her civil investigation of his firm’s business practices.
Covid-19 races through the swamp
Those Americans who disdain Washington often cite what they see as an overly cozy relationship between politicians and the journalists who cover them. The idea was at the core of Trump’s rants about the “Washington swamp.”
Such perceptions will be hardly be improved by more than a dozen positive Covid-19 tests coming out of one of the most insidery Washington events – the closed-door Gridiron dinner last weekend. Those who were at the big night out and tested positive include Attorney General Merrick Garland and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
And in another sign that Covid is sweeping through the capital, Pelosi’s office said Thursday that the House speaker has also tested positive. The 82-year-old is currently asymptomatic and is fully vaccinated and boosted.
Her case will renew concern about the virus getting closer to Biden, following a flurry of cases among White House staff. Pelosi was with the President as recently as Wednesday for a bill signing and stood at his right elbow. But the White House said Pelosi wasn’t considered a close contact of the President because their encounter was fleeting. The commander in chief, who has had his second booster, tested negative Wednesday night.
Two of the oddest recent stories to rattle the capital put a capstone on an often strange week.
In an extraordinary case, the FBI arrested two men in Washington for allegedly impersonating Department of Homeland Security agents for more than two years. The men allegedly gave expensive gifts to real federal agents, including apartment leases, surveillance systems, a drone, a flat-screen TV and a generator. In another twist, one of the defendants is alleged to have offered to buy a weapon for a Secret Service agent assigned to protect first lady Jill Biden.
This all only came to light after the two men were interviewed as witnesses by a US postal inspector investigating an alleged assault on a mail deliverer. There were no immediate details on the motives for this extraordinary scheme.
Another sinister distraction occurred when a fox that later tested positive for rabies struck fear into the hearts of those who work on Capitol Hill. A congressman and a journalist were among those who reported being nipped before it was captured by animal control workers and euthanized.
“You’re telling me I survived three years of a pandemic to be bit by a rabid fox,” Ximena Bustillo, a Politico reporter, wrote on Twitter.
This is no laughing matter, given the deadly nature of the disease and the shots anyone who is bitten has to endure to ward off infection.
But in times like these, a rabid fox spreading terror in the citadel of US democracy is the kind of Washington metaphor that writes itself.