For months, a critical mass of Democrats in the House of Representatives anxiously avoided even the slightest mention of impeaching President Donald Trump — right up until the moment when they demanded it.
It made sense why caution ruled the day for so long, especially within the caucus of moderate Democrats who carried the blue wave in 2018. Impeachment is inherently a political process, and the Framers were highly intentional when they designed it in the Constitution. The process was not meant to be a criminal trial, wherein a judge or jury is supposed to base a verdict upon a determination of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and the Constitution’s standard for impeachment, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” is vague. Crucially, the determination of whether the House of Representatives should impeach a president and the Senate should remove him has always been grounded in a mixture of law, politics and public opinion.
For this reason, I too long thought that Democrats would be making a mistake by advancing articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump, even though I believe him to be manifestly unfit for office. Although special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged coordination between Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia was essentially a referral for impeachment, as I argued in a column last semester, his report did not convince anyone who was not already convinced of the president’s unfitness, thanks in part to Attorney General William Barr’s duplicitous summary. House Democrats were right at that time that the moment for impeachment had not yet arrived, and so was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
And they are right now for changing their minds. To be sure, the tide has turned, the sea changed, the die cast, the Rubicon crossed — fill in your cliche of choice. In recent days, we learned that Trump pressured the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zalensky, to find compromising information on former Vice-President Joe Biden, Trump’s likeliest presidential opponent. We know that the president withheld $400 million in military aid to Ukraine just days before the phone call — aid that was appropriated by Congress, recertified by the Pentagon as necessary and consistent with U.S. foreign policy goals and badly needed by Ukraine to defend itself against Russian aggression. There is zero credible evidence that Biden did anything wrong.
We also know that a U.S. intelligence official was so alarmed by Trump’s dealings with the president of Ukraine that he or she filed a whistle-blower complaint. We know that the inspector general of the intelligence community found the complaint to be urgent and relevant enough to warrant forwarding to Congress, as required by law. And we know that the administration is blocking this transmittal, in apparent violation of law.
The new allegations against the president are simple and serious enough to be understood even by a public overwhelmed by the constant salvo of charges and counter-charges that has become the norm in today’s Washington. Trump’s refusal to provide Congress with an intelligence official’s whistle-blower complaint as required by law, accompanied by the allegation that he misused congressionally appropriated funds as a bargaining chip to convince a foreign government to damage a political rival, is assuredly a case of presidential wrongdoing.
In fact, this flagrant abuse of power is nearly identical to the allegations, denied by Trump, that were at the core of the Russia investigation: seeking a foreign government’s help in a U.S. election. The Constitution is clear: a president who uses the levers of government to advance his own interest over those of the country, as Trump appears to have done, commits an impeachable offense. This is the stuff of tin-pot dictatorships, not the United States, and if any fidelity to the Constitution remains in our politics, Congress will not let it stand.
Former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, who served on the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate, drew similarities between the allegations against Trump and Nixon’s wrongdoing in a New York Times op-ed on Wednesday. “Multiple reports say that President Trump used his office to press Ukraine’s president to investigate Joe Biden and provide damaging information about him, though there is no evidence of wrongdoing on Mr. Biden’s part,” she wrote. “This was a bid to affect the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, just as the Democratic National Committee headquarters break-in at the Watergate complex aimed to affect the 1972 presidential election … Mr. Trump’s reported actions would amount to a Nixonian misuse of presidential power that threatens our democracy and constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor.”
Republicans must now go on the record explicitly — if they vote to accept such conduct by this and therefore future presidents, the American presidency will be damaged forever. Likewise, Democrats should seize this opportunity to persuade the country that Trump’s presidency needs to end on Jan. 20, 2021. Although it’ll be a cold day in hell when the Republican-controlled Senate votes to remove Trump from office, a formal impeachment inquiry will allow the evidence of Trump’s wrongdoing to see the full light of day. And sunlight is the best disinfectant.