Note: this column originally appeared in USA Today, and was written by Checks & Balances member Paul Rosenzweig
Imagine that Democrats nominate Joe Biden, or Elizabeth Warren, or Mike Bloomberg, or anyone else in the field as their candidate for president. Now imagine that President Donald Trump, who once joked about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue, tweets out the following: “Crazy (fill in candidate name here) would be terrible for America. Can someone help me out here? Don’t worry, my pardon power is absolute.”
That’s a vague ask, maybe even a joke. But if you take the arguments of Trump’s defenders to their logical extreme, since granting a pardon is not a crime, even promising a pardon for “help” that could be deadly for a political opponent would not be grounds for impeachment. Seriously, that is the logic of the argument being offered by Trump and his team. And if the Senate accepts that argument, it will set a dangerous precedent that threatens the very foundations of American government.
The question is being posed as part of a scholarly debate about the meaning of the Constitution. What does the text mean when it says a president can be impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors”? Trump’s defenders have filed a brief in the Senate arguing that this means he can only be impeached for a criminal offense. They say that even if he did abuse his presidential authority by trying to force Ukraine to start an investigation of his political opponent’s son, that’s not an impeachable offense — because it’s only an abuse of power, not a crime. Since the House of Representatives never accused him of committing an ordinary crime, Trump says the impeachment charges should be dismissed.