Speed Reads

Trump impeachment trial

Alan Dershowitz's novel constitutional case against Trump's impeachment relies on a thesaurus

President Trump's defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz pulled the old quote-the-dictionary trick in Trump's Senate impeachment trial, arguing that Trump — or, in fact, any president — cannot be impeached for abuse of power because the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution rejected adding the word "maladministration." In this case, though, the dictionary wasn't much use — "maladministration," according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, means "inefficient or dishonest administration; mismanagement," and literally it means "bad management" — so Dershowitz turned instead to the thesaurus.

"The framers rejected maladministration," Dershowitz told the senators. "And what's a metaphor, or what's a synonym for maladministation? Abuse of power. And when they rejected maladministration, they rejected abuse of power." If you look up maladministration in the dictionary, he added later, "and you look up synonyms, the synonyms include abuse, corruption, misrule, dishonesty, misuse of office, and misbehavior."

The thesaurus argument doesn't exactly hold up, either.

Dershowitz is an expert in criminal law and a famous defense lawyer. Almost all constitutional scholars disagree with his views on impeachment. Clark D. Cunningham, a scholar on the original meaning of the Constitution at Georgia State University College of Law, offered some historical context in Politico, noting that while James Madison rejected the word "maladministration" as an impeachable offense, he understood the "misdemeanors" part of "high crimes and misdemeanors" to mean "misconduct" or "misbehavior," and certainly "a different and broader meaning than criminal acts."

Dershowitz and Jeffrey Toobin argued over whether "maladministration" equals "abuse of power" on CNN Tuesday. "Alan, you are equating maladministration with the abuse of power — you are the only scholar who does that," Toobin said. Dershowitz pointed to a new New York Times op-ed by Harvard's Nicholas Bowie that says "maladministration, abuse of office, abuse of power." You can read the op-ed, which doesn't mention the word "maladministration," at the Times, and watch the spirited argument below. Peter Weber