Opinion

The question that will determine if Trump is removed from office

Was there any public purpose for Trump’s pressure on Ukraine?

President Trump is running out of defenses. In the wake of the latest revelations, it's fairly obvious that what happened between him and the government of Ukraine is precisely what seemed to be happening when the scandal first broke. Trump used the leverage of American foreign policy — specifically withholding aid — to attempt to coerce the government of Ukraine into announcing and conducting an investigation into a campaign opponent. As that fact sinks in, it will require a shift in thinking on the part of Trump's many defenders.

In public, those defenders will surely continue to argue that the facts aren't all in, that there was no explicit quid pro quo, or that Trump wasn't personally involved in any decision regarding aid. But on an emotional level, these will no longer be plausible stances. In their heart of hearts, Republican voters, representatives and senators — the people who will decide whether Trump will be removed from office — will know the allegations are true. The remaining question is: Is what he did really so bad?

The prosecution would do well not to presume the answer is obviously "yes."

For one thing, there's the legitimate question of whether Trump's actions were actually criminal. The usual argument for criminality claims they were flagrant violations of campaign finance law, because any favor that Ukraine did the Trump campaign would have, in effect, been a contribution from a foreign government. But this stretches the meaning of a campaign "contribution" far beyond normal bounds of usage. This is the same problem the pro-impeachment caucus had with the Stormy Daniels scandal. In that case, Trump was using his own money to conceal personal embarrassment. The notion that he couldn't do that specifically because he was running for president surely struck most ordinary Republicans — and not a few non-Republicans — as laughable.

Moreover, criminal offenses don't mandate impeachment. Most of the Democrats who acquitted Clinton probably agreed, at least privately, that he had committed a criminal offense by perjuring himself. But they viewed that offense as having nothing to do with his performance of his duties, including his duties as chief magistrate, and has having only been committed as a consequence of an independent counsel investigation run amok. The proper punishments were censure, which he suffered while in office, and disbarment, which he suffered after leaving office.

That defense is harder to muster in Trump's case, where his actions clearly involved his core duties as president. But so long as what we're talking about is campaign finance violations, a subject much of the public regards as arcane and about which they are comprehensively cynical, the argument might still be made that these don't amount to impeachable offenses even if they are technical violations of the law.

But a president can legitimately be impeached for violating his oath of office in ways that did not constitute crimes. Hence the deeper charge is that Trump betrayed his oath of office by corrupting American foreign policy, undertaking actions that the country would never have done were it not for his own private interest.

Here too, though, the waters may readily be muddied. Part of the Trump defense is that Joe Biden did much the same thing: He threatened to withhold aid if the Ukrainians didn't fire a prosecutor. Biden's own defenders respond that Trump has the facts completely backward: The former vice president wanted the prosecutor targeted as part of a fight against corruption, and had the open support of our European allies in so doing. But was Biden's intervention clearly in the national interest? Saying so requires the conviction that America has much in the way of national interests in Ukraine — something I suspect many Americans would doubt if pressed on the matter. If impeachment comes down to this question, it will fail.

Moreover, Americans — including members of the respectable press — have speculated many times in the past whether presidents made foreign policy decisions partly for personal political gain. Most broadly, it is often alleged that domestic pressure groups like the pro-Israel and anti-Cuba lobbies routinely shape foreign policy in ways that don't align with the national interest — which implies that presidents prefer their political interests in placating these groups to the true interests of the nation. But some allegations are far more pointed. For example, when President Clinton bombed Sudan in 1998 in response to the al Qaeda attacks in Kenya, he was accused by some of "wagging the dog" — using the military as a distraction from impeachment (an allegation the 9/11 commission investigated and found to be unsubstantiated). Reagan's invasion of Grenada was criticized in similar terms — as a possible distraction from the catastrophic intervention in Lebanon. An impeachment resolution was even drawn up, though it went nowhere.

Is what Trump did different? I think it is, unequivocally — but the reasons need to be made crystal clear.

There's a very bright line between taking political considerations into account when constructing foreign policy and conducting foreign policy specifically and explicitly for the purpose of personal gain. If Reagan had actually invaded Grenada, or Clinton bombed Sudan, on entirely false pretenses just to gin up a popular war, that would have been clear grounds for impeachment in each case. But in both cases there were arguments that they acted in the national interest, however disputable — and the interests of state and the interests of the head of state are generally difficult to disentangle.

In this instance, though, nobody has come up with a plausible justification for Trump's actions that involves the national interest in any way. There was no broad effort to address corruption in Ukraine, nor any other objective with a public purpose, however debatable its value to America as a country. The interest in question was entirely and exclusively private.

That's what distinguishes Trump's actions, and it's what has to be the heart of the argument for the prosecution. It's an argument not about violations of the law, nor even about petty corruption, but about the nature of the government we live under: whether the powers of the presidency belong to the president, to be used as he wishes for his own interests, or whether they belong to the people, with the president as the people's agent.

It is often said, correctly, that impeachment is a political rather than a legal process. But impeachment is not normal politics, and if it seems like normal politics an impeachment will fail. Impeachment is politics conducted at a constitutional level, and it is only at that level that it can succeed.

Appropriately, therefore, it is not politically-vulnerable Republican senators like Cory Gardner and Susan Collins who will decide the question, nor perpetual dissenters like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski. If the GOP caucus cracks, it will crack wide open. And senators like Chuck Grassley, Mike Lee, and Rand Paul — conservative Republicans who have stood by the president but who have demonstrated they care about small-r republican government — are the ones who will signal that the dam has broken if it does break.

To get there, they'll need to believe that voting to acquit means accepting that the president treated American foreign policy as his personal instrument, the way a monarch may. I don't believe they will affirm that. So that is the case that needs to be pressed, with complete clarity.

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