The hysterical argument against impeachment reveals a poor understanding of, or brazen contempt for, constitutional principle
During the last fortnight’s impeachment hearings in Washington D.C., Republicans loyal to Trump asserted that the opposition party was embarked on nothing less than a political coup against a duly elected president. This, needless to say, was a large—and, if true, damning—claim against the national Democratic party. According to the president’s defenders, the impeachment proceedings arose from quotidian policy differences rather than grave presidential misconduct.
In reality, this entire line of argument was deranged. Contrary to the fiction disseminated on the right that because the left regards the president as illegitimate they have always been impatient to impeach him, the congressional Democratic leadership has in fact staunchly resisted this hazardous course of action for three long years. So what has changed?
The answer to that question is straightforward: the evidence as we know it strongly suggests that Trump commandeered U.S. foreign policy in order to muscle the Ukrainian government into investigating his domestic opponent. From materials released by a dissenting member of the executive branch and subsequently confirmed by the White House itself, it is clear that the president delayed congressionally-authorized lethal defensive arms for Ukraine, and threatened to deny the delivery of those arms altogether, unless and until Kyiv helped to besmirch his chief rival.
Anyone with eyes can see that this scheme was motivated solely by the president’s raw self-interest, and not anything resembling the national interest. Indeed, he pursued his personal interest at the expense of the national interest. (This is true even if you dissent from the view of those career Foreign Service officers and military personnel testifying before Congress that Kyiv’s struggle against Russian irrendentism implicates U.S. interests, since Trump ultimately dispatched the military assistance anyway.) It follows that the chief executive has not only unambiguously breached propriety but flagrantly misused his authority.
Americans have fresh reason to recall that the proper grounds for impeachment outlined in the constitution are not punitive but prophylactic: not as punishment for past misdeeds, but as a lawful method to prevent future misdeeds and corruptions. This danger is difficult though not impossible to discern, and the process of discerning it is partly what is meant when constitutional scholars refer to the political (as opposed to legal) nature of impeachment.
By this standard, it is Trump’s wrongdoing, and not the meanness or partisanship of his adversaries, that has flung open the door to impeachment. Although there is a debate to be had about whether the impeachment inquiry is politically prudent—I have argued that it is not—there can be scant doubt that it is morally justified. Although the nation will thereby be spared an ugly and draining process (when is impeachment anything but?), the cost of bowing to political reality will not be small.
The president, after all, has given an enormous hostage to fortune by inviting foreign governments to meddle in American elections for the benefit of one candidate or party in the hopes of being rewarded with political favors. To his credit—if that’s the word I want—the president has been nothing if not consistent in extolling the virtues of foreign meddling in American democratic processes: first by openly soliciting and rewarding it, then by doing nothing to guard against it, and most recently by begging for still more of it.
Trump’s menace is readily apparent to anyone not beholden to base partisan interests (though his many apologists are struggling pathetically to decide whether the president should be defended as a partisan of Ukraine or partisan of Russia). One way to prove this contention is that many harsh critics of the Obama administration’s foreign policy and supporters of a broad range of assistance to Ukraine including the provision of Javelin anti-tank missiles also find the president incurably corrupt. (This author is one of them.)
The immediate Republican defense of the president’s wrongdoing is that it did not constitute a quid pro quo. This rested on the fallacy that the actual exchange proposed by Trump did not take place, being scotched by the appearance of a “deep state” whistleblower (whom they curiously deplored), and that the military aid did ultimately reach Ukraine. What must have been a relief for President Zelensky, however, is no cause for comfort for the American people who have placed in the presidency someone who plainly abuses, and seeks to abuse, his office to bolster his own fortunes—literal and figurative—at the expense of the national interest.
The Republican position soon evolved into an outright defense of Trump’s attempted quid pro quo. White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney argued that it was routine practice for presidents to leverage America’s national power and influence abroad to obtain political concessions from foreign governments. This was true only if “political” refers to the interests of the country for which that power and clout was being exercised. To mark Trump’s shabby effort to extort a vulnerable ally under this rubric is simply risible.
It has even been suggested by some of Trump’s more desperate apologists that although his behavior has been manifestly corrupt, or at least irregular to the point of being unpresidential, it cannot be said to be impeachable. One can be forgiven for doubting whether the most depraved conceivable act, and at the furthest remove from reasons of state, in the nation’s highest office would be sufficient to overcome such lenience. Those observers so exceedingly strained to imagine what would constitute an impeachable offense might begin to exercise their imagination by considering President Washington’s Farewell Address, in which he warned that “foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
By rising to the defense of the indefensible, Republicans in thrall of Trump have marched in near-lockstep across the bright line that separates their party’s supposed reverence for the Constitution and the Trump administration’s abiding affront to constitutional principles. In word and deed, they have abandoned all semblance of serving the national interest, or even recognizing what it is. Wittingly or not, they are lending aid to a supreme foe of republican government. For years to come, “but Gorsuch” will be an awfully poor defense for the immense damage inflicted by this administration, and its Republican allies in Congress, on constitutional principle.