President Donald Trump in the Oval Office, September 16, 2019. (Al Drago/Reuters)I’m not sure Democrats are right to pursue impeachment. I’m sure Republicans are wrong to pretend that what Trump did was totally fine.
Here’s a take no one will like: I’m confident he did it. I’m confident it’s impeachable. I’m just not so sure he should be impeached for it.
Let’s start at the top. It’s obvious to me that President Trump pressured the Ukrainian government to launch a probe of former vice president Joe Biden in order to tarnish the image of the Democrat best positioned to defeat him in 2020.
In the rough transcript of his conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump says America has been very good to Ukraine, but he wants the relationship to be more “reciprocal.” Zelensky agrees and asks for more anti-tank missiles to deter ongoing Russian military aggression. Trump responds by asking for a two-part “favor.”
First, he asks Zelensky to look into the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers (a bat guano-crazy request, but whatever). Then, Trump mentions “the other thing” he wants.
“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump says.
The context matters as much as the text. Trump had already blocked the transfer of congressionally approved military aid. Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, had been hectoring the Ukrainians for months to go after Biden (and it remains his singular obsession even now). Giuliani even admitted it last May in an interview with the New York Times. He said he was lobbying the Ukrainians to investigate Biden because “that information will be very, very helpful to my client.”
And that’s why Trump asked Zelensky to work with Giuliani.
There’s more context as well. There were reportedly other calls in which Trump importuned the Ukrainians this way. Trump’s explanation for why he froze the military aid to Ukraine in the first place keeps changing. On Monday he said he blocked it out of concern over Ukrainian corruption (the only corruption in the world he’s passionate about, apparently). On Tuesday he said the real reason was that he wanted our allies to pony up even more money for the government he claimed was too corrupt for our aid in the first place.
Normally you’d think an inadvertent confession would settle things. But when Trump said of his call with Ukraine, “There was no pressure put on them whatsoever. But there was pressure put on with respect to Joe Biden,” the assumption was that he misspoke.
We also learned Thursday that the “whistleblower” alleges the White House took extraordinary measures to hide the transcript of the call, which, if true, suggests wiser heads understood that the conversation crossed a line.
Regardless, I think Trump did it. I think it’s obvious he did it. I think as more facts come to light, it will become even more obvious he did it. I also think it’s obvious that this is an impeachable offense.
However, that doesn’t mean I’m persuaded he must be impeached over it.
Impeachment doesn’t mean “removal from office.” It’s the political equivalent of a grand jury indictment, with the House fully empowered to impeach any action it deems impeachable. It’s up to the Senate to decide whether a president should be removed.
The Federalist Papers are clear: Impeachment is a political process, not a legal one. Illegal acts are surely impeachable, but not all impeachable acts are illegal. If the president stood on the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office and shouted obscenities on national television while dancing in the nude, that would be impeachable but not illegal (FCC violations notwithstanding).
Impeachment is ultimately a question of whether a president violated the public trust. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that says a president must be impeached for violating the public trust. I can list any number of occasions when presidents have done that and it never even occurred to anyone that they should be impeached for it.
It’s a prudential question with good arguments on both sides. If I were Nancy Pelosi, I’d be even more torn than she’s clearly been. In the modern era, we’ve never had the drama of an impeachment process in a president’s first term or in the run-up to a reelection. We’ve never had a lot of things that we’ve had under Trump.
Absent new facts, the GOP-controlled Senate will not remove Trump. The president would claim “exoneration,” and his behavior would become normalized for future presidents. So I’m not sure Democrats are right to pursue impeachment. I’m sure Republicans are wrong to pretend that what Trump did was totally fine.
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