Sunday, September 29, 2019

Impeach Trump to Deter Future Presidents

      Before Watergate. few students of the American presidency would have thought that a president would send burglars into an opposing political party headquarters and then direct hush-money payments to the burglars to keep them from spilling the beans. But President Richard M. Nixon did those things and, after incontrovertible proof emerged, resigned in the face of a certain impeachment, conviction, and removal from office.
      Nixon's cut-short impeachment establishes a clear precedent of what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" under the Impeachment Clause and serves to deter any future chief executive from repeating his misconduct. Today, President Donald Trump must be impeached for his attempt to solicit a foreign government's interference in the 2020 election to deter him from doing it again and to set the precedent for future chief executives.
      Trump actively solicited Russia's interference in the 2016 election and consciously benefited from the Putin government's disinformation campaign against Trump's opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Trump escaped accountability for his actions after special counsel Robert Mueller failed to find prosecutable evidence that Trump and his campaign directly colluded with the Russians in their interference.
      Trump took from this episode the lesson that he could get away with it. Three years after the infamous Trump Tower meeting to gather dirt on Clinton from the Russians, Trump went so far as to tell ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he would take information on a future opponent from a foreign government. "There's nothing wrong in listening," he told Stephanopoulos. "I think I'd want to hear it."
      Long after the fact, it is now known that Trump actually told Russian diplomats during a meeting in the Oval Office four months after taking office that he had no concerns about the Russians' interference in the 2016 election. Unchastened, Trump directly asked for Ukraine's help in the 2020 election in his now infamous July 25 telephone call with Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
      The so-called "rough transcript" of that telephone conversation, as eventually released by the White House, confirms the incriminating account that the unidentified intelligence community whistleblower pieced together in the course of his official duties from others with direct information about the call. The "memorandum" of the call shows that Trump dangled military aid before Zelensky as he asked the Ukrainian head of state for his government's assistance in investigating former vice president Joe Biden, currently the leading Democratic candidate to oppose Trump in 2020.
      Even with the damning evidence for all in Congress and the American public to see for themselves, Trump has continued to insist the call was "perfect," not merely innocent. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved quickly to greenlight an impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives. By midweek, more than 218 Democrats —  a majority in the 435-member House —  had publicly supported Pelosi's move, suggesting that Trump is now all but certainly facing impeachment by the House and a trial in the Senate for yet-unspecified high crimes and misdemeanors.
      With the 2020 election still a year away, the House must impeach Trump if for no other reason to warn him against any other election-related misconduct. Timothy Snyder, the Yale historian who raised alarms early in Trump's presidency of tyranny-creep, aptly noted Trump's lack of remorse in an appearance with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow on Friday [Sept. 27]. "Seeking foreign interference in two elections is a record unlikely ever to be broken," Snyder remarked.
      At Pelosi's direction, the Democratic strategy for now appears to be to gather evidence on Ukraine-gate quickly —  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo received strongly-worded subpoenas on Friday — and then move on after hearings to a single-count article of impeachment. That "short and sweet" strategy may be best politics for the steep uphill road that Democrats face in an eventual trial in a Senate controlled by Republicans who cower in fear of being "primaried" by Trump's base.
      Republicans and Trump apologists —  but I repeat myself —  have concocted a false narrative that Trump actually wanted to help Ukraine ferret out corruption of the sort that  he and the manic Rudy Giuliani falsely imagine Biden and his son Hunter committed.  To be clear, Ukraine's prosecutor has stated that Hunter Biden did nothing illegal as a board member of the Ukrainian oil company and Joe Biden, as vice president, helped oust the former prosecutor for lack of anti-corruption initiatives.
      A one-count article of impeachment against Trump would establish that a president's soliciting a foreign government's assistance in gathering dirt on a political opponent amounts to impeachable conduct even if, in the political circumstances, he is not convicted. The precedential value of an impeachment could be increased if other counts were added — for example, for Trump's open and notorious violation of the Constitution's Emoluments Clauses, as argued in this column as early as 2017.
      With the evidence not yet disclosed, Biden accurately described what we now know Trump did in the phone call. "That is not the conduct of an American president," Biden said. Sadly, it was, but one hopes never again.
      Trump has lowered the bar for presidential conduct from his first day in office, but Congress must at least draw a line against using the presidency for a shakedown in the manner of a Mafia don. The House's duty is clear even if conviction in the Senate is unlikely and the political effects of the process unclear. Yes, "Impeach Now."

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