Forgive me for thinking out loud but thinking on paper is often useful, and I think could be helpful for others. Should President Trump have been impeached and should he now be removed from office?
What deserves impeachment:
I believe that the Founders meant for impeachment to happen more often then we have used it. James Madison in the debate of the constitution said impeachment was necessary “for defending the Community [against] the incapacity, negligence or perfidy of the chief Magistrate.” Also, saying after the election the President could, “lose his capacity…pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression” or “betray his trust to foreign powers.” Based on the spirit of these words, I think the Founders would have been surprised that in two hundred plus years the president was found incompetent, negligent, or unworthy (perfidious) only four times.
However, the fact that it has only happened four times also builds a precedent or standard for modern impeachments. As America has become more small ‘d’ democratic and less small ‘r’ republican, seeing impeachment as a means of overturning an election result has probably reduced its appeal. It seems that in the last 10 years impeachment has needed new information not available or understood by voters at the polls and the gravity of a crime being involved. Impeachment has moved from being about a violation of office to a violation of law while in office.
Facts show that President Trump on a phone call with the president of Ukraine tied military aid to the opening of investigations into possible corruption allegations centered around the Biden family, information damaging to a political rival. Further, Trump asked that Ukraine cooperate with both his justice department and his personal attorney, seemingly seeing them as interchangeable in conducting the investigation. The allegation is that in so doing President Trump abused his power in an attempt to target his domestic political opponent.
I don’t think President Trump sought dirt on Vice President Biden to compromise him as a 2020 candidate. That seems to require a level of strategic thinking and fear of candidate Biden that I don’t see. To me, the most likely explanation is that Trump had been given bad information about Ukraine tampering in the 2016 election and he felt like if he exposed it his victory in the last election would be vindicated from the claims of illegitimacy due to Russian interference.
If true, there is an air of legitimacy in 2016 investigations that there isn’t if it is only about 2020 because if he truly believes Ukraine tampered in the last election than just as we looked into Russian meddling we would have a legitimate need to look at Ukrainian meddling.
This, however, is where being nice to Trump ends because in this view of how things happened President Trump is still using foreign policy for personal gain, Ukraine a dependent country with a history of corruption is still getting pressure towards the somewhat predetermined result of supporting President Trump’s preferred outcome.
Secondly, I don’t feel comfortable with a US President basing policy decisions on poorly sourced pretty extreme conspiracy theories or seeing the justice department and his own personal attorney as interchangeable. I also don’t like that President Trump used foreign policy to grind his own personal axes and aggrandize his prior accomplishments.
My final issue with the Administration comes in how it has presented its defense of the accusations. Whether it is a strategic error or a character flaw President Trump’s insistence that his team doubles down on every issue and holds every line has lead to him and his team making assertions that cannot be supported by the facts. This, in essence, means he is guilty of misleading and polarizing the American people.
Imagine that instead of saying his call was perfect and there was no quid pro quo, Trump’s defense was something like: “Yes, there was a quid pro quo, it is common in foreign policy to attach a string to aid. These requests were legitimate in my mind because I believed that Ukraine had tried to interfere with the 2016 election, and if the Bidens are caught up in it, that’s too bad. We are troubled by some of the things we discovered about corruption in the country but we didn’t find everything we thought could be there. The aid has been released without any announcement of investigations showing that we were not holding out for anything more corrupt.” This defense could have been embarrassing for the Administration, but it would be supportable based on the facts and, like the Mueller Report, might have been found not worthy of impeachment.
The president isn’t alone in acting poorly. The Democratic Party does seem to be conducting an impeachment in search of a justification. One representative said at her inauguration before there was a Mueller Report or a Ukraine whistleblower that she was going to impeach the president. Nancy Pelosi admitted in a press conference last December to working on impeaching a president for 2 and a half years which again means she started before the current allegations were known.
The House impeachment inquiry was rushed, the Trump team didn’t get to make their case, and they accused the President of obstructing Congress, which does not exist when the truth is they choose to not wait for the courts to supply power to their subpoenas. All of this is suggestive of there being no desire to build unity or clarify the situation. Rather it seemed this was a partisan act to hurt the President politically and fulfill promises to a rapid anti-Trump base.
So I come to means, motive, and opportunity. The Democratic-controlled House was given means by the midterm elections. While their motive seems to be corrupt it does not absolve the President of giving them the opportunity.
And here are my mixed feelings. What is worse: corrupt motive or stupidly giving opportunity? How do you weigh bad behavior against bad behavior? Trump was guilty of using foreign policy for personal benefit and in my belief, this was to a lesser degree and with more plausible legitimacy. His defense is dumb and requires misleading the American people. My guess is that the founders would see this as impeachable, but here is the difficulty. I don’t see this as an attempt in good faith to raise the level of the character for elected officials. Rather I think this is about a political left that is using whatever levers are at their disposal to press forward their agenda. In fact, I am worried to encourage this behavior by granting legitimacy to it.
Even with my concerns, I would be fine with impeachment if it was in line with prior impeachment attempts, but the truth is the case is not as strong as the case against Clinton and Nixon were. The President is guilty of bad behavior but it is not worse than the current standard for impeachable offenses.
I think part of me is actually very okay with how things will unfold. The House impeached the President for behavior which was objectively bad, the senate will exonerate him because there was no unity built around removing him and no real underlying crime. I think impeachment may begin to be a form of censure for behavior that is bad but does not meet the standard for removal from office that has evolved over the last two hundred years. If that is the case and this goes down in history as a censure of presidential behavior, maybe I am fine with it.