Why Impeachment is Necessary

If receiving government money means you owe the President a personal favor, we’ve become a different kind of country.

As the House formalized its impeachment inquiry this week, many voices raised a legitimate question: Why put the country through this? Impeachments are divisive, and given Republican control of the Senate (and the proven willingness of Republicans to choose party over country) removing Trump from office seems unlikely, no matter what he may have done.

That question has an answer: If the direct evidence of corruption we’ve seen in the Ukraine case doesn’t produce any response, then as a country we’re saying that we view this kind of presidential behavior as normal and acceptable. Going forward, that collective shrug will make the United States a very different kind of country than it has been before.

Conservatives often raged about Barack Obama’s pledge to “fundamentally transform the United States of America”. (And just as often, liberals have expressed their disappointment at his inability to fulfill that pledge.) But if there are no consequences for his abuses of power, Trump will have succeeded in fundamentally transforming America —  into something much more like a banana republic than the nation the Founders envisioned.

“Do us a favor”. With all the damaging witnesses who have testified to the House Intelligence Committee these past two weeks, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the most incriminating words so far came from President Trump himself and were released by the White House. In the rough transcript of his call with President Zelensky of Ukraine, Zelensky asks about buying more anti-tank Javelin missiles, and Trump responds, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”

The favor is to launch investigations into two matters: “Crowdstrike”, which started “that whole nonsense [that] ended with a very poor performance by Robert Mueller” the previous day, and “The other thing, there’s a lot talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

In other words, in order for Trump to stop blocking the military aid that Congress had already appropriated, Ukraine had to do two things to benefit not the United States, but Trump’s re-election campaign: undermine the basis of the Mueller investigation and tear down the Democrat that the polls have been saying is most likely to defeat Trump in 2020. [1]

Even baseless investigations can be effective. Presuming that these Ukrainian investigations were performed honestly, they would turn up nothing, because their subject matter consists of two conspiracy theories that can’t even be told coherently in any detail. The Wikipedia article on the Crowdstrike theory characterizes it as “multiple disjointed threads of unfounded allegations”. And the reporter who wrote the first Biden-Ukraine story in 2015 describes the Trump version as “upside-down“.

But the ultimate result of these probes doesn’t matter: The investigations into Hillary Clinton’s emails ultimately turned up nothing (beyond the kind of corner-cutting that happened under previous administrations and is also common among Trump’s top advisors, including Jared and Ivanka). But just the fact that Clinton was being investigated lent credibility to Trump’s smears against her and justified the chants of “Lock her up!”

Trump could get similar value out of an investigation of Biden, even if we later discovered it had found nothing. [2]

Beyond Ukraine. So Trump, by his own words, has been caught red-handed in an abuse of power — using his official powers for personal gain. The way we found out — a whistleblower inside the administration had the courage and the patriotism to write up a complaint — seems so fortuitous that it’s easy to imagine that many similar abuses of power have gone unnoticed. [3] Think how easy it would have been to miss this one: Ukraine announces a corruption investigation into the Bidens, and crowds chant “Lock him up!” without realizing that Trump himself started that investigation.

Lots of circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that this isn’t a unique situation: Trump continues to insist that his side of the Zelensky call is “perfect” and “I did nothing wrong”. So why wouldn’t he do the same thing somewhere else? Plus, his zeal to unmask (and presumably punish) the whistleblower only makes sense as a tactic to intimidate officials who might blow the whistle on other abuses of power. We fortuitously caught him once, demanding a personal favor for a public action. How many other examples are there?

And what if, now that Congress and the public know about this, there is no consequence? No removal from office, no impeachment, no censure, no need for a humiliating public apology? Trump insists that “I did nothing wrong”, and Congress validates that opinion. [4]

Well, then we’ve established that this kind of behavior is OK. There’s no need even to hide it any more, or to limit the occasions for it: If you want Trump to perform his public duty, you need to do him a favor.

So if the State of New York wants the highway funds Congress has appropriated, maybe it should drop its investigation of the Trump Foundation. If Jeff Bezos wants Amazon to compete for a big Pentagon contract, maybe he should rein in The Washington Post, which he also owns. It’s no big deal; Trump just wants a favor. [5]

Lots of countries work this way: Russia under Trump’s role model Vladimir Putin, for example. One thing we can learn from looking at those countries is that corruption tends to trickle down. If Trump can ask for favors before doing his duty, so can officials of lesser power. In a few years, the clerk at your local DMV may expect a tip before processing your driver’s license renewal. That also happens in lots of countries.

Do we want to be one of those countries or not? Underneath all the arguments about process and quid pro quo and so on, that’s the issue Congress will be debating these next few months.

[1] The country/president distinction is one that Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney tried to skate over in the quid-pro-quo confession he later walked back:

We do that all the time with foreign policy. We were holding money at the same time for — what was it? The Northern Triangle countries. We were holding up aid at the Northern Triangle countries so that they would change their policies on immigration.

Unlike Ukraine, the Northern Triangle example was about trying to mitigate a problem for the country; it wasn’t a favor for Trump himself.

[2] Bill Barr’s investigation — recently upgraded to a “criminal” investigation — into the origins of the Mueller investigation serves a similar purpose. All Barr has to do is keep the investigation going through the 2020 campaign. That will allow Trump to make outrageous claims about what the investigation is finding, which Barr will be duty-bound not to comment on.

Remember the detectives Trump claimed he sent to Hawaii to investigate Barack Obama’s birth certificate? “They cannot believe what they’re finding,” he told NBC. But for some reason he never told us what those unbelievable findings were. I have to wonder if there ever were any detectives.

[3] Josh Marshall makes that case here. In brief: We’ve known for some time — there are several examples in the Mueller Report, just to name one source — that Trump frequently orders his people to break the law. In most of the stories that have reached the public, those people pushed back and refused.

In the Ukraine scheme, though, numerous people realize something is going on that is at best unethical and at worst illegal. And yet the scheme perks along until one guy — one of many, remember — reports it to Congress. Marshall wonders what has been happening in parts of the world where corruption is taken for granted, like Saudi Arabia or the Arab Emirates.

Trump’s willingness has always been a given. That of crooked oligarchies looking for advantage is equally so. The question has been the acquiescence, if not necessarily the connivance, of high level advisors. That is clear now too.

In other words, there is every reason to think, the very strong likelihood that Donald Trump’s corruption and lawlessness has already infected relationships with numerous countries abroad. It’s now just a matter of finding out the details.

[4] That’s why even an impeachment that fails to remove Trump from office will be worth doing, especially if a few Republican senators vote against him. Such a process would show that there is a line somewhere, even if this case didn’t result in punishment.

Behind the scenes, some Republican senators are rumored to be looking for a middle position: coming out against what Trump did, but holding that it’s not an impeachable offense. That’s not an impossible position to defend, but this question needs to be put to them: If not impeachment, what is the proper way to hold Trump accountable? Because doing nothing just says it’s OK.

If Trump were a different kind of person, I could imagine an outcome similar to the Clinton impeachment: He admits to doing wrong, apologizes to the country, and pledges never to do anything like that again. But Trump doesn’t even ask God for forgiveness; he’s not going to ask the country.

[5] You can see this kind of thinking in Trump’s war on California. The state has been a thorn in Trump’s side, participating in as many as 60 lawsuits against his administration’s actions. Trump, in turn, has used the federal government’s regulatory power to target California in numerous ways. The particular issues are often ones that Trump has otherwise shown no interest in, like the environment or homelessness. But he can make California pay a price for opposing him, so he does.

For now, all of this is done in a deniable way. But if the Ukraine scheme is acceptable, then there’s no reason not to be open about the quid pro quos Trump is demanding.

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  • Creigh Gordon  On November 4, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Surprisingly, Judge Andrew Napolitano on Fox News is blunter than you are:

    “Trump held up $391 million in American military hardware and financial aid to Ukraine until Ukrainian prosecutors commenced a criminal investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter…Whether one agrees with federal law or not, it is a crime to solicit assistance for a federal campaign from a foreign government. As well, the crime of bribery consists of a government official refraining from performing a legal duty until a thing of value is delivered to him.”

  • Anonymous  On November 4, 2019 at 9:40 am

    Doug, this is excellent, as always. I’m seeing a lot of this analysis, though, about the politics and the legal case for this impeachment, as well as the standard prediction that the Senate will not vote to remove him. What I’d really like to see is further analysis of what I consider to be the far more likely outcome–that Trump will work an artful deal to resign from office (before the end of this year, I expect) claiming health or medical issues, perhaps a fall or injury of some sort, in exchange for as much immunity as he can get for himself and his family. I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen you consider this outcome or even remark on Trump’s clear signs of progressing dementia. I understand the Goldwater rule, but when the President responds to a question about polls with “You’re reading the wrong polls! I have the real polls!” and lots of other nonsensical calf splatter, I think intelligent analysis demands that we talk about his mental decline. Just compare his face, his speech, his gait, his body language to what we saw just two years ago, the decline is striking. How are we not supposed to talk about that??

    • George Washington, Jr.  On November 4, 2019 at 10:49 am

      I’ve heard the theory that Trump will resign, in return for Pence pardoning him and everyone in his family. The problem is that Pence can’t pardon him for the crimes that New York State is investigating. So there’s no benefit to resigning. It makes more sense for him to just ride this out in the hope that 20 Republican senators won’t decide to vote with the Democrats.

      • Anonymous  On November 4, 2019 at 10:55 am

        I think the 20 GOP senators is what they will use as leverage to force him to resign. He would rather resign due to “medical issues” than be impeached and removed from office.

    • weeklysift  On November 5, 2019 at 8:28 am

      I wish I believed that. I’d don’t see Trump admitting weakness of any kind — physical, mental, or moral — and anyone who sees a weakness in him is the Enemy. So I think he’ll either serve out his term, die in office, or be removed kicking and screaming via either impeachment or the 25th Amendment.

  • Wade Scholine  On November 4, 2019 at 11:51 am

    Behind the scenes, some Republican senators are rumored to be looking for a middle position: coming out against what Trump did, but holding that it’s not an impeachable offense.

    I have to ask, “Why behind the scenes?” The answer, I submit, is that contrary to your next sentence, this is an impossible proposition to defend, though these Republican Senators might be willing to make the attempt if there is no other alternative to admitting that their President is unfit.


  • By Ethical Means | The Weekly Sift on November 4, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    […] week’s featured posts are “Why Impeachment is Necessary” and “Religious Freedom for […]

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