Does the impeachment and potential removal of President Trump threaten to punish routine political conduct due to partisan disagreement? My co-blogger Josh Blackman makes the case for this view in today’s New York Times. He makes some very important points that highlight how some advocates for the President’s impeachment and removal have oversold their claims and made careless arguments. His piece also makes a more careful and nuanced argument against impeachment than has been made by the President’s defenders. I think Josh’s piece underscores some of the practical consequences of the failure of House Democrats and their allies to more forthrightly attempt to engage those outside of their base in their effort as well. All that said, I strongly disagree with Josh’s bottom line. While the risk of using impeachment to advance partisan political goals is a real threat, the case that President Trump’s conduct justifies impeachment and removal remains standing.
The historical episodes Josh highlights make the point that Presidents routinely consider the political consequences of their decisions, including whether certain actions will benefit them politically, even when more weighty considerations are at hand. It is a mistake to resist these claims (or to pretend, as some Democratic partisans do, that weighty decisions made by recent Presidents were not influenced by political calculations). But in an effort to draw a parallel between such conduct by past Presidents and the conduct of President Trump, Josh and I part ways.
In his op-ed, Josh writes:
What separates an unconstitutional “abuse of power” from the valorized actions of Lincoln and Johnson? Not the president’s motives. In each case, a president acted with an eye toward “personal political benefit.” Rather, Congress’s judgment about what is a “legitimate policy purpose” separates the acclaimed from the criticized. Preserving a unified nation during the Civil War? Check. Creating a vacancy so the first African-American can be appointed to the Supreme Court? Check. But asking a foreign leader to investigate potential corruption? Impeach.
This framing, in my view, engages in a bit of bait-and-switch, and thus obscures what is actually at issue. The charge against President Trump is not that he wanted an actual investigation of corruption in Ukraine (however misguided such a request may have been), but that he did not care about whether there was an investigation at all. As virtually all of the evidence in the record shows, what he asked for was the announcement of an investigation, and that he had no interest in combating actual corruption of any kind. This difference may seem small, but it is key – and Josh’s argument only works if this distinction is obscured.
Central to the argument for impeachment and removal is that the President engaged in the sort of conduct that the founders identified as justifying including impeachment in the Constitution: Using the nation’s foreign policy as a tool for personal benefit, and thereby betraying the public trust.
The announcement of an investigation into Burisma and the Bidens could benefit President Trump’s personal political ambitions, yet there is no plausible argument – at least no plausible argument that I have seen or heard – that the mere announcement of an investigation could or would do anything to advance any legitimate anti-corruption agenda. Further, there is now ample evidence that those helping Trump push for the announcement of an investigation, such as Rudy Giuliani, were explicitly acting on behalf of Trump himself in his personal capacity, and not the office of the President, let alone the nation. If one disbelieves such evidence, and genuinely believes the President sought an actual investigation into actual corruption, that could be a reason to conclude that no impeachable offense occurred, but the evidence for this view is decidedly lacking.