With no bluff, but all bluster, Rep. Charlie Rangel removed himself from his own ethics trial, declaring that the process was unfair, improper and impartial. The key to Rangel’s objection was that he did not have counsel and could not afford a legal team in time for the trial. This may look like an attempt to delay the proceedings, to gum them up or a sincere effort to obtain counsel, but what we were really seeing was what was left of Rangel’s defense. The only defense left was to give up on the trial and go forward with a PR strategy to lose the trial, but win in the court of public opinion.
Rangel made this effort clear when he was given an opportunity to ask the committee for a formal request for a delay as he sought counsel, but he refused. This was immediately following his speech to the committee about not having counsel. It took Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a committee member, to ask that the committee review Rangel’s request to decide whether to grant Rangel more time.
In rejecting the opportunity to request a delay–who knows if this would have influenced the opinions of the committee members–Rangel made clear that his chief complaint, that he could not retain counsel, is largely bluster.
Rangel, in fact, retained counsel as of a month ago. Rangel and his law firm parted ways almost immediately after the trial date was announced. The New York Times describes the divorce like this, “Mr. Rangel and his defense team from the firm Zuckerman Spaeder parted ways several weeks ago.” It is unclear under what circumstances the two parted ways.
What is clear is that Rangel has no interest in mounting his own legal defense before the committee. The spectacle of his speech and rapid exit from his own trial was just that, a spectacle. By removing himself from his own trial he gets to mount his own defense on his own terms, something that he has already begun,
“The process that the Committee has decided to take against me violates the most basic rights of due process that is guaranteed to every person under the Constitution. The Committee has deprived me of the fundamental right to counsel and has chosen to proceed as if it is fair and impartial and operating according to rules, when in reality they are depriving me of my rights.”
That is a piece from a statement released by Rangel’s office this afternoon. Rangel is taking his defense, that of an unfairly put-upon public servant, to the public, particularly his constituents. And what does the trial matter if it is a Rangel trial without Rangel? I think that Jean Baudrillard would say that the trial of Charlie Rangel doesn’t exist if there is no Rangel in the trial. And who cares about a verdict in a trial that doesn’t exist.
It’s not clear if Rangel’s stunt will work, but it sure has made the committee’s operations smaller than it would have been. All of the attention will focus on Rangel’s reaction to the ruling of the committee, as he has changed the public perception of the trial and the ethics charges. I don’t think that it will save him from punishment that could lead to the end of his tenure in Congress–not through expulsion, but with a seat as a back-bencher with no fundraising sources. It could, however, aid his reputation when he does leave Congress among the only community he cares about, his constituents.