If Obama …

A series of thought experiments Democrats have been running for the last three years is the “What if Obama did this?” genre. It most recently showed up Wednesday, when House Manager Adam Schiff created a fantasy about Obama’s race against Mitt Romney in 2012. (Romney, of course, is now a senator and was sitting in the room.)

[Schiff] suggested the hypothetical example of Obama telling [the Russian president at the time Dmitry] Medvedev, “I know you don’t want me to send this money to Ukraine cause they’re fighting and killing your people. I want you to do me a favor though,” Schiff said, echoing wording in Trump’s July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he allegedly asked him to investigate the Bidens.

“I want you to do an investigation of Mitt Romney and I want you to announce you found dirt on Mitt Romney,” Schiff continued with his hypothetical. “And if you’re willing to do that quid pro quo, I won’t give Ukraine the money to fight you on the front line. “

Schiff then asked senators if there is any question Obama would have been impeached for that kind of conduct.

“That’s the parallel here,” he said.

At times I wonder about the usefulness of if-Obama thought experiments, because they’re based on the assumption that the same moral rules ought to apply to everyone. In recent years, though, more and more Republicans have adopted a purely tribal point of view which rejects any reciprocity between Our Side and Their Side. Of course it would be wrong if Obama had done the same thing that is right when Trump does it, because by definition Obama is wrong and Trump is right. [1] Republicans seem to be losing the capacity to feel shame about this kind of hypocrisy. [2]

Even recognizing that, though, I can’t resist one more if-Obama thought experiment, because I don’t think Schiff’s fantasy goes quite far enough. Instead of 2012, let’s think about 2016, and suppose that Obama believed — as he undoubtedly did believe — that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the country.

Let’s take one further step and imagine that Obama understood what Vladimir Putin was capable of. Already in July of 2015, Trump is telling Russian agent Maria Butina that he would revoke the sanctions Obama had placed on Russia after its invasion of Crimea. [3] So Putin has good reasons to want Trump elected. But what if Obama goes to Putin and puts in a higher bid for his support?

Maybe he says something like: “During the transition period after the election but before the new president takes office, I’ll be in a position to help you out in Ukraine — at least if the election turns out the way I hope it does. We’ll forget about sanctions, and if you want to take over the rest of Ukraine, that would be OK too; we wouldn’t do anything. Of course, we’d expect something in return. But anyway, I just wanted you to know that you should be rooting for Clinton, the same way I am.”

Obama doesn’t want to be guilty of a criminal conspiracy, so he doesn’t spell out what he wants, other than for Putin to “root”. But let’s say Obama’s personal lawyer — just to make it specific, let’s choose Greg Craig, a Democrat who was indicted in a Mueller-related case, but found not guilty — talks to some of Putin’s people and lets them know that Putin should do for Clinton all the stuff he had been planning to do for Trump. Again, nothing specific — just do it.

So Putin does: His people hack Republican computers and Trump campaign computers, then pick out the most embarrassing stuff and release it (drip, drip, drip) via WikiLeaks. They use their social media resources to push hundreds of anti-Trump fake news stories to exactly the kinds of wavering voters Trump needs. And all that stuff doesn’t happen to Clinton.

When Clinton wins, Obama does exactly what he said he would. He cancels the Russia sanctions, and stands by idly while Putin carves up the rest of Ukraine.

On the one hand, this is all reprehensible: My fantasy of Evil Obama has torpedoed an ally, put the rest of eastern Europe at risk of Russian expansion, and invited foreign interference in a US election. But by the standards put forward by Trump’s current defenders Obama has done nothing wrong.

  • He never specified what Putin should do, so there was no deal. He hinted and Putin understood what he meant, possibly due to more roundabout channels of communication, but that doesn’t matter. As Jim Jordan said about Trump’s Zelensky phonecall: “Tell me where the quid pro quo was.” If it’s not spelled out, it doesn’t count.
  • Laws were broken — anti-hacking laws, campaign finance laws, etc. — but because Putin broke them without Obama’s direct instructions, that’s crime doesn’t count against Obama. There may have been all kinds of collusion between Obama’s people and Putin’s people, but (as the Mueller Report says) “Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” If there’s not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy, there’s no problem.
  • Whether or not to defend Ukraine is a policy decision that is within the president’s power. He can’t be officially called to account for exercising his legitimate prerogatives, no matter how destructive to the national interest those decisions turn out to be. “Maladministration,” Alan Dershowitz tells us, “is not a ground for impeachment.”
  • But what about his corrupt intent in making this deal-that-wasn’t-a-deal? His party may have gotten political advantage from it, and national security may have suffered, but that doesn’t make it corrupt because Obama honestly believed Clinton’s election was in the public interest. Serving his party’s partisan interest above the national interest is not an abuse of power, because in the President’s mind, his party’s partisan interest is the national interest. As Dershowitz put it: “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” It would be even less of a problem if he thought somebody else’s election was in the public interest.

So: trading Ukraine to the Russians to get Hillary Clinton into the White House — you may not like it, but it’s just one of those things. “Get over it,” Mick Mulvaney would say.


[1] This shows up most clearly in the Republicans whose beliefs about impeachment have made a 180-reversal since Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 and his trial in 1999. Lindsey Graham is the most obvious example; he proposed a very expansive definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for Clinton then but a very restricted one for Trump now. Mitch McConnell looks just as bad. In 1998 he asked the question: “Will we pursue the search for truth, or will we dodge, weave, and evade?” This time around, he’s on the side of dodge, weave, and evade.

Lawyers who testified for the Republicans have also reversed themselves since Clinton. Then, Alan Dershowitz said “you don’t need a technical crime” to impeach Clinton. But as he watched these last two decades from his seat in the Afterlife, James Madison must have changed his mind. Because for Trump “the Framers intended that the criteria be, high crimes and misdemeanors — that is, existing criminal statutes.”

Jonathan Turley likewise didn’t think Republicans needed to prove that Clinton violated any specific law. “While there’s a high bar for what constitutes grounds for impeachment, an offense does not have to be indictable. Serious misconduct or a violation of public trust is enough.” But it’s not enough now that Democrats have impeached a Republican. “This would be the first impeachment in history where there would be considerable debate, and in my view, not compelling evidence, of the commission of a crime.”

Given this context, I’m not surprised that Republican senators don’t worry about the precedent they’re setting for a future Democratic administration. The precedent is that the rules are looser for Republicans than for Democrats. I expect them to uphold that precedent in any future impeachment.

In case you’re wondering, I laid out my criteria for impeachment before I knew what Robert Mueller would report, and long before the Ukraine scandal erupted. The current articles of impeachment fit them perfectly:

(1) Loyalty to self has eclipsed loyalty to the country. … (2) The president’s actions threaten the integrity of the election process. … (3) The president’s actions prevent investigations of (1) or (2).

[2] I wonder how much this tribal perspective is related to the increasing identification between the GOP and evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals see no similarity between their own sins (which God forgives) and other people’s sins (for which they will burn in Hell). So Trump is forgiven and Clinton is not — end of story.

[3] The 2015 video of Trump responding to Butina is worth watching for another reason: It demonstrates how much mental deterioration Trump has suffered in the last five years. In this video, he is asked a question and he answers it. He stays on topic for two whole minutes and speaks coherently the whole time. How long has it been since you’ve seen him do that?

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Comments

  • James  On February 3, 2020 at 10:31 am

    I think the Republicans are banking on skewing the vote to the extent that they never need be concerned with a Democratic president, or with any meaningful Democratic opposition in the future.

    Then, the American form of oligarchy will be complete.

  • Tom L Waters  On February 4, 2020 at 1:34 pm

    I grew up with the golden-rule type “imagine if the situation were reversed” moral thought experiments, so I find them very compelling. However, I have come to realize that many people just don’t engage moral thinking in that way. You can give an example like “If it is OK for a teacher to lead children in Christian prayer, would you want a teacher to lead children in pagan rituals?”, but many Christians do not see these as two examples of the same thing, but rather as opposite things. The Christian prayer is inherently good, the pagan ritual is inherently evil, and so it makes sense to argue for the first and against the second, and that is not seen as hypocrisy (your example of the muslim official not approving restaurant licenses works exactly this way too). The identity of the person and their belief system is not an irrelevant attribute to be factored out, it is the primary moral marker. So a “real American” like Trump can do whatever he needs to do to succeed in the agenda of saving America that his followers attribute to him, but an un-American or anti-American black liberal who does similar things in his agenda to destroy America is of course in the wrong.

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