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A little impeachment for large abuses

Dec 23,2019 - Last updated at Dec 23,2019

WASHINGTON, DC — Much as he mocked the process for months, US President Donald Trump very much did not want to be impeached. No president does; it’s an ineradicable stain on their record. And Trump has just about never in his life been called to account. He was more or less in a rage for weeks as the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives moved forward, and his mood didn’t improve in the immediate aftermath of his becoming the third president in the history of the United States to be impeached.

Yet, for all the commentary about the “momentousness” of the House impeachment vote, the occasion seemed somehow lifeless. In my view, that’s because the Articles of Impeachment weren’t at all commensurate with the scope and egregiousness of Trump’s violations of his oath of office.

Those violations are legion. Trump has systematically defied the separation of powers at the heart of the US constitutional system. For example, frustrated that Congress denied him all the funds he wanted for his phantasmagorical wall along the border with Mexico, he simply plucked the money from funds that Congress had allocated for the Defense Department. He has also flouted the Constitutional prohibition on accepting emoluments — money or personal benefits from foreign governments that do business, sometimes of extravagant proportion, at his various hotels and golf clubs — and has found other ways to monetize the presidency.

Moreover, Trump has tried to steer government contracts toward favored companies, or away from those he dislikes – for example, Amazon, whose founder, Jeff Bezos, also owns The Washington Post. And according to special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, Trump tried to obstruct the investigation into his 2016 campaign’s dealings with Russia. But because a Justice Department rule dating from Richard Nixon’s presidency bars the criminal indictment of a sitting president, Mueller virtually begged Congress to impeach Trump for ten specified acts.

Against that list — which is likely incomplete — the two Articles of Impeachment brought before the House, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, seemed to many to be thin beer. On July 25, 2019, Trump had attempted to extort Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into announcing a government investigation of Joe Biden, a Democratic candidate for the 2020 election, and Biden’s son, Hunter, who had unwisely joined a Ukrainian gas company’s board when his father was US vice president and in charge of US policy toward the region. The essence of the first impeachment charge was that by holding up congressionally approved military assistance for Ukraine, which is under attack by Russia, Trump was using his government position to benefit himself.

The second charge against Trump was for “obstruction of Congress,” owing to his blanket refusal to permit his aides to testify before Congress about the Ukraine affair or to turn over to congressional investigators any requested documents. No president before him, not even Nixon, had been so iron-willed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had long resisted impeachment, fearing that it could rally Trump’s supporters for the 2020 presidential election. She also worried that impeachment might jeopardize the Democrats’ control of the House, all of whose members also face re-election next year. To hold the majority — and her own position as speaker — she cannot afford to lose many of the 41 Democrats who in the 2018 midterm elections “flipped” seats previously held by Republicans, usually in districts that Trump had carried in 2016.

But by the time Trump’s behaviour towards Ukrainian president Zelensky came to light, Pelosi had come under increasing pressure from the House Democratic caucus to open an impeachment inquiry. She and her close ally Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who also had resisted impeachment, concluded that Trump’s withholding of the approved military assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia jeopardized national security. They also felt that this was an issue the public could understand. Moreover, a number of the Democratic freshmen recruited by Pelosi and others were veterans of the military or the CIA. Democratic leaders believed — correctly, as it turned out — that such candidates stood a better chance of winning in a Republican district. And, though these freshmen had resisted impeachment, the national security implication was likely to appeal to them.

For these reasons, Trump’s Ukraine shenanigans would be the basis for impeaching him. In hearings that Schiff conducted on the matter, several government workers, defying Trump’s gag order, confirmed that a rogue operation headed by Trump’s private attorney, former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, was circumventing official US policy on Ukraine. Among the myths they spun was a Kremlin-manufactured canard that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election to help Hillary Clinton.

Many, including me, believe that the basis for impeaching Trump should have been broader than the Ukraine matter. According to this view, the House Democratic leaders failed to confront the true nature of Trump’s presidency, and, as a tactical matter, it would be better to force the Republicans, cult-like in their support of Trump, to defend him on more than one issue. But Pelosi is not House Speaker for nothing: she had read her caucus, and the new members wanted narrow grounds for impeachment that they could easily explain to their constituents.

For Pelosi, Schiff, and their allies, one factor was time: They didn’t want the impeachment and the subsequent Senate trial to go deep into a presidential election year. Schiff emphasized in public statements that it was important to stop Trump from once again bringing one or more foreign governments into a presidential election.

But almost nothing involving Trump goes smoothly. After the two Articles of Impeachment were adopted, Pelosi announced that she was holding onto them, rather than, per tradition, immediately sending them to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had announced that he opposed impeaching Trump and would work hand in glove with the White House to stage-manage the trial. Pelosi hoped to influence the Senate’s trial rules. With McConnell and his Democratic counterpart, Charles Schumer, unable to agree, Congress recessed without resolving major questions about the Senate trial, a key one being whether witnesses would be called.

McConnell’s room for manoeuvre is limited, however, because Trump wants a trial badly — and soon. Trump assumes that, with a two-thirds majority required to convict him and remove him from office, he will be acquitted. But the more time elapses before a Senate trial, the more possible it is that new and explosive revelations will come to light.


Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall. ©Project Syndicate, 2019.

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