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I Don't See It (But I'd Like To)
In retrospect, it's almost impossible to imagine Richard Nixon getting impeached today for exactly the same acts.*
I'd love to see President Trump leave office.
He's not a good person. We've known that at least since his sexual assault confessions leaked. Of course, bad people can still be decent presidents, as Bill Clinton supporters spent the '90s loudly insisting. But Trump has been a pretty bad president in a great many ways. His signature domestic legislation was a bad law, and, in foreign affairs (theoretically the most important part of a presidency), the kindest thing you can say is that Trump's policy has been... um... erratic. In the few ways that Trump is a good president (e.g. he appoints fantastic judges), any conservative -- including Vice President Mike Pence -- would be even better.
Moreover, Congress has been too timid about the impeachment power for decades... maybe centuries. Combined with other Congressional fecklessness, the result is that the president's powers are now downright awe-inspiring, while the legislature is about as relevant as the Roman Senate post-Augustus. I would love to see Congress take back its prerogatives. I would love to see them make an example of one of our modern imperial presidents.
But the fact that I want President Trump out of office does not a "high crime or misdemeanor" make.
Now, I have pointed out for years that the standard for impeaching a president under the Constitution is much broader than most people (especially partisans) realize. You don't have to prove an actual statutory violation to impeach; a sufficiently serious abuse of power, even if technically legal, can count as a "high crime or misdemeanor." English high officials could be convicted of "high crimes and misdemeanors" for things as subjective as appointing "unfit and unworthy" officials and failing to enforce the laws passed by Parliament. That's how the Founders understood the phrase, as explained in this 1974 Congressional memo (which, weird trivia fact, was worked on by a young Hillary Clinton).
You can't impeach someone just for being incompetent ("maladministration" is specifically not a high crime), and you can't impeach someone for generalized abusiveness (although I wish we could impeach for abuse of Twitter), but you can impeach for specific acts that egregiously abuse the powers of the presidential office. There are some subjective variables here, but that's why the impeachment process gives us jurors: each U.S. Senator must weigh the evidence and decide whether they see a "high crime or misdemeanor" in the President's behavior.
My role models in anti-Trumpism -- David French, Ross Douthat, Jonah Goldberg -- all appear to see exactly that in the Ukraine affair. I've always seen pretty much exactly what they see in the various Trump scandals, both the good and (mostly) the bad.
This time, though... I don't get it.
The President of the United States heard and apparently believed a rumor that a United States official (former Vice President Biden) and/or his son had possibly engaged in corrupt behavior in Ukraine. Whether this rumor is true or false is immaterial. I'm personally inclined to believe it is false.
But the President believed it to be true, and that's what matters. The story is not absurd on its face, so his interest in it cannot be dismissed as pretextual. The President has a positive responsibility to investigate corruption by U.S. officials under the "take care" clause. That's true even when those officials happen to be political rivals, as Biden is. Since the alleged crimes took place within Ukraine, the President would naturally wish to enlist the assistance of the Ukrainian government and have them sniff around a bit on behalf of the American justice system.
Of course, foreign governments do not do "favors" for us just cuz we're buds. That's not how international diplomacy works. In fact, the Ukrainian government has strong incentives not to to get involved in domestic U.S. politics. So the President applied some light diplomatic pressure, vaguely suggesting that some foreign aid money would be unfrozen in exchange for the requested assistance. (Yes, Team Trump is being pretty silly to deny there was a quid pro quo. We can read; it's right there. This is a very funny skewering of their talking point.)
No international deal, on any matter, large or small, has ever been accomplished without some kind of quid pro quo (whether explicit or, as here, merely implied). That's not bribery; it's the basic exercise of the constitutional foreign affairs power.
So the whole exchange, it seems to me, is, on its face, legitimate.
Now, when you dig in a bit to the context -- Vice President Biden is, after all, President Trump's most likely 2020 political opponent -- "abuse of power" fits a little better. It starts to smell like maybe the President of the United States is using the immense power of his office, plus a little highly dubious foreign intelligence, to scare up some opposition research to help him win an upcoming election. A cynic might plausibly call that an egregious abuse of presidential power.
...of course, one must at this point observe that, just a couple years ago, President Obama relied on a little highly dubious foreign intelligence to get a FISA warrant on a Trump advisor, kicking into high gear a massive, multi-year exercise in opposition research, backed by the immense power of the U.S. intelligence community, which ultimately turned up... nothing much! But President Obama's Russia investigation accomplished what a cynic might plausibly argue was President Obama's goal: generating a giant cloud over the head of an incoming president Team Obama hated, and undeniably hobbling President-Elect Trump's agenda for his entire first term. Not only has nobody I've read suggested Obama deserved impeachment over this tidy little affair, but many of the same Very Serious People calling for President Trump's impeachment today claim with a straight face that President Obama had a "no-scandal" presidency!
Impeachment for abuse of power is, as I've said, somewhat subjective. Under the Constitution, we can have very lax interpretations of it and very strict ones. Both are legitimate, if applied consistently. But this scandal makes me think that there's one standard for President Trump the year before his re-election campaign, and another standard for everybody else (both parties).
Consider all the times recent Presidents abused power much more obviously than President Trump did here, yet weren't convicted (or, in most cases, even tried):
President Clinton's perjury
President Clinton's obstruction of justice
President Bush's establishment of a surveillance state with zero Congressional authorization or oversight
President Bush's firing of the U.S. attorneys
a scandal I admit I only dimly remember and barely followed
remember that refusal to enforce the law was a key "high crime or misdemeanor" to the Founding Fathers
President Obama's interference with the investigation into Hillary Clinton's criminal email server
President Obama's investigation into Candidate Trump
President Trump's own obstruction of justice during the Russia investigation
there doesn't seem to have been collusion, but I tend to agree with my man Justin Amash that the coverup itself represented a major, and quite possibly impeachable, abuse of power
If Congress wishes to adopt a new, very strict standard whereby all Presidents are removed from office who seem, on clear and convincing evidence, to have abused their powers, then that's their prerogative. I'll be ecstatic: I'll be rid of President Trump, and, bonus, future presidents will have to radically change how they operate compared to recent history. Congress would be in possession of at least some power again. Huzzah!
But does anyone really think that's what's going on here? Does anyone really think that there's a great moral revolution happening in 2019 Washington, and the Great and the Good are finally realizing that they should have impeached President Obama the instant he suspended the employer mandate? Does anyone think Chuck Schumer is going to come out in the middle of all this Ukraine stuff and apologize for voting against Bill Clinton's impeachment for caught-red-handed perjury in 1999? Or that Bill Kristol's going to come out and condemn Iran-Contra?
I sure don't. And if our standard for "abuse of office" is so lax for every other president and public official in the land, I don't see how Trump's inappropriate behavior in Ukraine suddenly meets the bar for impeachment, conviction, and removal.
But a bunch of right-wingers I respect do see it. That, more than anything, is why I felt the need to write this post. I hope this little half-hearted defense of Trump ages poorly. Because I don't see it... but I'd like to!
*NOTE: I have no idea whether the image at the top of this post is authentic. Nixon resigned in August and was thus never impeached, so I'm not sure why gallery tickets to an October impeachment proceeding would ever have been printed. But it's a great picture! Thanks, Google Image Search!
UPDATE: I changed my mind.