America almost did not have a president. The men who arrived at the constitutional convention in 1787 brought with them the fear of monarchy. If the country did not have someone of George Washington’s stature, the young nation might have adopted a parliamentary system of government. Yet having created the office, the founders had to devise a way to remove presidents who abuse their positions—so the nation would not become a monarchy or oligarchy. They defined the mechanism: an impeachment vote in the House, followed by a trial in the Senate. The question of what exactly a president should be impeached for—“treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors”—was deliberately left to Congress.
Hence, though impeachment is a constitutional provision, it is also a political campaign.
That campaign began in earnest this week when Nancy Pelosi directed her Democratic colleagues in the House to begin impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump.
This will not necessarily lead to impeachment. In the past, though, impeachment hearings have generated a momentum of their own. The process is fraught with risks on both sides. One thing seems certain: the process will further divide a country that is already set against itself.
Pelosi has taken such a momentous step because she believes the president’s behavior towards Ukraine’s government crossed a line. If that seems an obscure reason to contemplate unseating a president, remember that impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon had their origins in an office burglary and the ones against Bill Clinton began with an affair with an intern.
President Trump appears to have let Ukraine’s government know that relations with America, including the supply of aid, depended on it pursuing an investigation into the family of a political rival—that would be more serious than a break-in or a fling. It would mean the president had subverted the national interest to pursue a political vendetta.
The federal government often gives foreign powers promises of aid in exchange for doing something that America wants them to do. The Ukraine case is different. America has an interest in ensuring that Ukraine is able to defend itself against Russian aggression, which is why Congress came up with a package of $391m in military aid for its newly elected government. Trump acted against the national interest in putting that aid on hold, while pressing Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, to investigate Hunter Biden, who had business dealings in Ukraine and is the son of the Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden. If that were not clear enough, Trump also sent his personal lawyer to meet an adviser to Zelensky and repeat the message.
In a country as corrupt and vulnerable as Ukraine the link between American support and investigating the Bidens—you give us dirt on Joe and we’ll give you weapons and money—did not need to be explicit to be understood. “I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation,” Zelensky told Trump in a call on July 25th.
You might have thought the Mueller investigation into his campaign’s dealings with Russia would have made Trump wary of dallying with foreign governments. It seems not. His conduct looks a lot like bribery or extortion. And to use taxpayer funds and the might of the American state to pursue a political enemy would count as an abuse of power.
The founders wanted impeachment to be a practical option, not just a theoretical one. Otherwise the president would be above the law, a monarch sitting on a throne for four or eight years. Declining to impeach Mr Trump would set a precedent for future presidents: anything up to and including what the 45th president has done to date would be fair game. Republican partisans should consider to what depths a future Democratic president, thus emboldened, could stoop.
It would also signal to America’s allies and foes that snooping on Americans who are influential or might become so was a fine way to curry favor with a president. There would be no need for the dirt even to be true. Russia and China, are you listening?
Such are the risks of ducking impeachment. Yet the risks on the other side—of pressing forward—are great, too. Voters expect impeachment to be a last resort, not a trick by one party to remove a president from the other, or a means for the losers of an election to frustrate its result. House Democrats risk looking self-indulgent as, rather than getting on with fixing infrastructure or health care, they obsess over the minutiae of internal White House communications. The hearings may spin out of control and make Democratic politicians seem ineffectual and obsessive, as the stonewalling testimony of a former Trump aide, Corey Lewandowski, did last week. The hearings may also be too confusing and rancorous for the public to follow.
Even if the House did decide to impeach Trump, it is highly unlikely that he would be found guilty by the two-thirds majority needed in the Senate, where Republicans hold 53 of 100 seats. Legally, Biden’s dealings in Ukraine have no bearing on whether Trump abused his office. Politically, though, the two are linked because they give Republican senators minded to defend Trump a handy set of talking points.
A failed impeachment that leaves Trump in office might not be much of a deterrent to this president or to a future one. In fact, it might even help Trump, who could argue that he had been found innocent after a partisan witch-hunt by loser-Democrats. Until this week that was the calculus of Pelosi and House Democrats from competitive districts. It is not clear that public opinion has yet shifted enough to change the equation. Though it may be bravado, Trump’s campaign team has always insisted that the more Democrats talk about impeachment the better it is for the president’s chances of re-election in 2020.
Faced with such a daunting choice, Pelosi had until now held back. But Trump appears to be becoming more brazen as re-election draws near. The president’s behavior needs investigating, with the extra authority that the impeachment process confers. Better, therefore, to lean towards principle than pragmatism. But it is a risky and perilous path.
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