It was February 2011. I was a relatively young local government reporter and I will, if pressed, admit to being a bit starstruck that state Speaker of the House Thom Tillis stood right in front of me talking that year’s budget standoff with then-Gov. Bev Perdue, although that gauzy feeling did not last long.
The new Republican majority in Raleigh was going to “gut-punch her,” Tillis promised gleeful local GOPers in a private Lee County country club event, before digging into another Democrat, then-state Rep. Deborah Ross too.
At one point, a local conservative with a reputation for nauseating rhetoric urged a chagrined Tillis to “squeeze that little blonde” for the money—the little blonde being, presumably, Perdue, the first woman governor in North Carolina, an embattled Democrat reportedly referred to, nauseatingly, by leadership in her own party during her days as a state Senator as “dumpling.”
Nervous laughter followed and Tillis quizzically asked if there was a reporter in the room. Several dozen fingers pointed at me and I raised my hand for the House Speaker, who seemed mostly unfazed.
I felt then, as I feel now, that I had seen more of the character of North Carolina’s GOP political establishment than I had ever wanted to see. It was like opening the wrong bedroom door and finding your aging uncle—bent, gnarled and carbuncular—in a state of undress.
After we reported those conversations in the next morning’s Sanford Herald (whose online archives do not go back this far else I would link here), Tillis denied in an interview with a capital reporter that the conversation had ever taken such an ugly turn. I do not recall a single local Republican—and there were roughly 75 to 100 in the room—who disputed his account.
That a politician would lie or spin hardly requires comment; that 75 to 100 generally calm, decent and polite people I had spoken to and interviewed for the better part of two years condoned it does.
I felt then, as I feel now, that I had seen more of the character of North Carolina’s GOP political establishment than I had ever wanted to see, like opening the wrong bedroom door and finding an aging uncle—bent, gnarled and carbuncular—in a state of undress.
It was in that moment that Tillis, and the sanctified notion of party loyalty above all else, lost a great deal of credibility to me. It was as if I’d returned home to find the floorboards of my home terminally compromised.
I am reminded of that odious lesson this week, as the United States Senate continues the impeachment trial of a fatally corrupt president and Tillis, now a member of that august D.C. chamber, sits in judgment of these serious charges and the ominously stacking evidence behind them.
And when I consider what I saw, what I heard, what I reported in that Sanford country club in 2011, it is difficult, nigh inconceivable, that I could trust this to Thom Tillis’ credibility.
“They don’t have the information,” Tillis spat of the impeaching Democrats in a short video tweeted out by his office last week. “It’s a sham impeachment. It’s a waste of people’s time and people in North Carolina are getting tired of it.”
This week, after reports seemed to indicate Trump’s ex-national security advisor John Bolton is prepared to contradict the president’s accounting of the Ukraine scandal, Tillis and North Carolina’s other senator, the soon-to-be-retired Richard Burr, scoffed at the notion of even hearing from Bolton.
It was in that moment that Tillis, and the sanctified notion of party loyalty above all else, lost a great deal of credibility to me, as if I found the floorboards of my home to be terminally compromised.
“They don’t have the case,” Tillis told former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory on his radio show this week. “It should be dismissed based on the lack of evidence and lack of process.”
There are few in D.C., even I believe among the Republican caucus, who believe there to be a dearth of evidence that Trump withheld Ukrainian aid to avail himself of partisan advantage in the upcoming election. Between Bolton, Lev Parnas, Gordon Sondland and every credible document linked to the president’s Ukraine dealings, it requires a giant leap to imagine that so many would conspire to frame our president in such a fashion.
And if such a wealth of evidence leaves the “moderate” wing of Senate Republicans, names like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, wavering over witnesses or conviction, then we should acknowledge that there is no moderate wing of the Republican Party in the U.S. Senate.
Perhaps more boggling, Burr seemed to make room for the possibility that the claims are true while still defending the president, as if the president declaring foreign aid to be expressly contingent on his own electoral advantage is not precisely the abuse of power American founders seemed to fear when they crafted the articles of impeachment.
If such a wealth of evidence leaves the “moderate” wing of Senate Republicans wavering over witnesses or conviction, then we should acknowledge that there is no moderate wing of the Republican Party in the U.S. Senate.
“The hearsay that John Bolton or anybody else may bring to this is irrelevant because even if the president said this, it does not raise to the level of removal from office,” Burr said on McCrory’s show. “Which is a sacred thing because the American people have duly elected him.”
The Republican margin for error in this country remains four football fields wide, while the margin for liberals no wider than a teacup.
It seems as if it is not only the credibility of Donald Trump at stake. It is the credibility of the Senate, the Republican Party, North Carolina, Richard Burr, Thom Tillis, and yes, all of us, that hangs in the balance.
It is not the corruption that is most offensive, but the complicity. It is not Donald Trump and Thom Tillis and Richard Burr that are most offensive, but their feckless backers. It is not Trump’s impeachment that is most offensive, but his almost-certain acquittal.
That Tillis and Burr would choose their party over country is hardly revelatory anymore; but that some 88 percent of Republicans, those opposing conviction according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, would choose factual and moral illiteracy over credible United States leadership is.
Indeed, it is not the corruption that is most offensive, but the complicity. It is not Donald Trump and Thom Tillis and Richard Burr that should gall us most, but their feckless backers. It is not Trump’s impeachment that is most rotten, but his almost-certain acquittal.
I feel as if I’m back in that country club today, that I am watching a gross display we all know to be gross, but no one, not the party-goers, not the organizers, not the United States senator nor N.C. Speaker of the House is, to the last, willing to give voice to that truth.