Whoever said politics don’t belong at the dinner table has never been to a black Thanksgiving. With food, family and maybe a sip of something, very few topics are out of bounds at my Aunt Sara’s house.
Like my mom, Aunt Sara is from Tuskegee, Ala. A child of the civil rights movement, her activism and optimism are informed by the historic times she’s witnessed. Aunt Sara is also an avid viewer of MSNBC, so she keeps it current, too. She is a retired teacher, and as everyone’s retired aunt does, now lives “just a little outside Atlanta.”
My cousin Leroy works two jobs providing care to mentally disabled individuals in New York City. Like me, he was born and raised in NYC. He doesn’t follow the news minute-by-minute like his mom, but texts me when “something wild” happens. So, a lot.
After a decade as a government oversight and ethics lawyer in Washington, D.C., I know a good deal about corruption and impeachment. After nearly four decades as a black person, I know that with family, my so-called expertise takes a backseat. Like a lot of folks this Thanksgiving, Aunt Sara and Leroy wanted to talk Trump and impeachment. Since most of the TV commentators on impeachment don’t speak to or for the black community, I figured I’d share my family’s perspective. That conversation took several detours along the way, but what follows is a compilation of their views about impeachment shared in between movies, Pokeno, eating, and other Johnson Thanksgiving traditions.
First, we shared initial impressions about the impeachment hearings coverage.
Aunt Sara: I watched the hearings, every day, all day. I was so struck by the intellect and honesty of career diplomats who put their livelihood on the line. Just seeing all of these people come forward—they had no reason to lie. There is nothing in it for them personally, but the country is being threatened by Trump’s wild behavior and greed.
Cousin Leroy: I watched it on the news. I’m at work 16 hours a day, but I try to stay informed. It’s the same for the last three years—Trump doesn’t have any respect for the law and especially for black people and minorities.
Then, I asked Leroy about Ukraine. The conventional wisdom is that Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky moved the American public on impeachment. Not him.
CL: That particular situation isn’t concerning to me. They have a number of things they could impeach Trump on. I don’t feel like Ukraine, being a black male, would affect me personally. I just think it’s Trump again being corrupt and thinking he’s above the law.
Me: For me, this boils down to basics—is it OK for any president to ask a foreign country to interfere in our election? After the Ukrainian president mentions getting aid to help fight Russia, Trump says “I would like you to do us a favor, though.” That sounds like blackmail and the witnesses confirmed Trump’s pressure campaign. To make matters worse, he went on TV and says China should investigate [former Vice President Joe and his son Hunter] Biden. Now, if China can dangle dirt on Biden in front of Trump, it might compromise America’s interests, like in the trade war. If he’s gonna keep breaking the law, impeachment is the only option.
What’s most frustrating, though, is that many people don’t seem to know the facts. We weren’t sure how to deal with that.
AS: The average person isn’t paying attention to what’s happening. People should be calling Congress and advocating for impeachment now!
CL: I agree. It’s a difficult thing.
Me: What needs to happen for people to pay attention?
CL: I don’t know.
AS: I don’t have an answer, but you’ve gotta have boots on the ground. I see this in Georgia with so many issues. You have to explain things to people face-to-face in terms that we can understand.
Me: What do your co-workers think of all this?
CL: I don’t think they’re watching the impeachment hearings, but they have a broad sense of what’s going on. Most of them say Trump should be in jail.
Me: Well, the corruption is baked in. That’s why my group, CREW, sued Trump on day one for taking money—emoluments, it’s called—from foreign governments and states through payments to his DC hotel. That, and obstructing the Mueller investigation—that stuff’s impeachable too.
AS: I talk to everybody, even in line at the grocery store. The first thing I say is that you must vote in every election. Where I came from as a child we could not vote. So, it’s something to cherish.
Of course, at any Thanksgiving, there is always someone not actually in the conversation with something to say. I’m asked what’s the point of impeachment if there is an election in November.
Me: An election is about policy. It’s for normal times. Nothing about Trump’s corruption is normal. He invited Ukraine and China to help undermine the 2020 election, and he’s not gonna stop. When one of us is suspected of a crime, we catch a case. But since DOJ says a sitting president can’t be indicted, right now, the only way to hold Trump accountable is through impeachment.
I was surprised to discover that our biggest disagreement was about the unmasking of the whistleblower.
Me: Do you think Trump should know who the whistleblower is?
AS: Of course not. Everybody that testified supported what the whistleblower said. There’s no reason to put his life in jeopardy.
CL: Trump should know who the whistleblower is. He blew the whistle, so why not?
AS: Their life would be in danger. That’s why! We know this country was founded on violence. [Lt. Col. Vindman] had to get security, so don’t tell me the whistleblower wouldn’t be in danger.
Me: The president and his cronies are basically threatening that “snitches get stitches.” That’s a crime in the real world. Here, it’s called obstruction of Congress.
CL: I think the whistleblower would be politically doomed, but I can’t see somebody harming them.
Both Leroy and Aunt Sara think Trump will get acquitted in the Senate. I’m reserving judgment. Still, we all agreed that the impeachment process must move forward.
CL: They are gonna impeach him. I don’t think the Senate will approve it though.
Me: You’re probably right, but it’s not inconceivable. Remember, Sondland, the most damning witness last week, is a Republican that gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration. The facts are there if Senators put country over politics.
AS: If there are any morals left in this country, they have to go ahead.
CL: I still think they should move forward. It’s important to have the hearings and trial.
AS: But they’ve still got to explain to people what’s happening and how it affects them personally. Otherwise, they’re not going to get involved.
So ended the Johnson family impeachment conversation, but it certainly won’t be my last one— with my family or with the culture. We need to continue these conversations after Thanksgiving, on Black Twitter, at the spades table, in church and everywhere in between. The stakes are too high for any of us to be on the sidelines.
Donald K. Sherman serves as deputy director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). Prior to joining CREW, he worked as an oversight and ethics lawyer in the House, Senate, and the Obama administration including as chief oversight counsel to the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings on the House Oversight Committee.