In December 2016, lobbyists for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia spent $270,000 renting 500 rooms at the newly opened Trump International Hotel in Washington, fittingly located between the White House and the U.S. Capitol. In doing so, they established a frequently repeated template for how foreign governments could buy influence over Donald Trump, one that became the subject of a lawsuit (since dismissed) in just the last few months but has been obvious to informed observers all along.
The Constitution states that “No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” Under any good faith reading of this clause, Trump has routinely and flagrantly violated the Constitution by marketing his hotels, resorts, and other properties to foreign governments while serving as president. But this is hardly the only case for impeaching Trump. Firing James Comey and admitting on national TV that he did so to impede the Russia investigation should have been an impeachable offense. So should have been Trump’s preemptive offer of pardons to officials who illegally seize land to build his promised border wall, to take just one instantly memory-holed example.
As Alexander Hamilton wrote in one of the Federalist Papers, impeachment is warranted for “those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” There is no reasonable argument that Trump has not committed such offenses on a daily basis as president. Most members of Congress in both parties are fully aware of this.
If the rule of law meant anything to the American political class, Trump would have been impeached on the first day of his presidency. It’s conventional wisdom that it doesn’t mean anything to the Republican Party, and that there was no chance of Trump being impeached on any grounds whatsoever as long as Republicans controlled the House of Representatives. But even after Nancy Pelosi took the Speaker’s gavel in January, it remained an article of faith in much of the Washington establishment that the president is by definition above both the law—as Attorney General Bill Barr, among many other conservative legal minds, has argued—and above the only means of redress prescribed in the Constitution. After Democrats took back the House on promises of resistance and accountability, Pelosi spent most of 2019 pouring cold water on the idea of impeachment and seeming far more concerned with suppressing the insurgent left wing of her caucus. And just last week, so-called “NeverTrump” conservative pundits like Bret Stephens, David Brooks, and Jonah Goldberg argued that impeachment is a bad idea even if it is merited.
Impeaching Trump has always been urgently necessary, both for the sake of the rule of law and because of the unique temperamental instability Trump brings to an office that legally entitles him to launch a nuclear apocalypse at will. Nervous liberals argue that impeachment would somehow empower Trump, or that Mike Pence would be an even more dangerous president. The two closest recent precedents we have, Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1998, suggest otherwise. In both instances, party control of the White House changed hands at the next opportunity, with Jimmy Carter winning in 1976 and George W. Bush winning in 2000, each running on a platform of restoring honor to the presidency. There’s no reason, other than a deep-seated and irrational fear of the electorate, to think 2020 will go any different—and in fact, Trump is far less popular than either Nixon or Clinton were at the heights of their respective scandals.
But something has finally motivated Democratic leadership to act. On its face, the specific abuse of power that now seems likely to instigate Trump’s long-overdue impeachment offers as good a justification as any. The transcript of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky clearly shows that Trump tried to make the fulfillment of congress-approved military aid to Ukraine contingent on Ukraine launching a corruption investigation intended to damage one of Trump’s likely 2020 rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden. The kind of foreign collusion to influence an election outcome that Robert Mueller found so difficult to establish in the context of the Russiagate scandal could hardly be more blatant in this case. It’s absolutely an impeachable offense and Trump should absolutely be impeached for it.
And yet it’s frustrating that this episode of corruption is what it took to open an impeachment inquiry. On an immediate level, it’s hard to watch Washington’s shameless self-congratulation, exemplified by CNN giving five “badass” first-term centrist House Democrats, all of them white women, credit for leadership on impeachment after they belatedly reached the position that women of color and fellow first-term representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar have held all along and have taken significant amounts of flack over.
There’s also the question of why this scandal, and why now? The Intercept’s Ryan Grim has reported on the months of grassroots activist pressure, including primary threats, that eventually pushed moderate Democrats to flip on impeachment over the whistleblower complaint against Trump. While that testifies to the power and potential of progressive activism, it doesn’t fully explain why the Democrats dragged their feet for the first nine months of this congressional term, or why this scandal finally changed their minds. Trump, after all, has spent much of the past year caging, starving, and traumatizing innocent children in likely violation of international law without pushing them over the edge.
A number of observers have pointed to the clarity of this particular scandal: the transcript, the straightforward quid pro quo, the brazenness of it all. But Trump is infamous for saying the quiet part loud, and to suggest that any of his other offenses have been the least bit subtle gives him too much credit, and implies far too much naiveté on the part of Congress.
More telling is that this scandal involves Trump targeting the person who is currently leading the polls in the Democratic presidential primary. Moreover, Trump is targeting Joe Biden for a scandal that, however conspiratorially it may be misrepresented by conservative media outlets, is still quite damning on its face. For those of us who were never happy with the multitude of technically legal instances of corruption that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 nomination compelled Democrats to defend, the story of Hunter Biden selling his family name to a Ukrainian oligarch for $600,000 per annum is history repeating itself as farce. It is obviously corrupt and obviously beneath any ethical standard for public service, and a Democratic Party leadership concerned with ethics would be grateful that it’s being raised now while there are still multiple viable alternatives to Biden whose families haven’t accepted what are functionally foreign bribes.
But the Democratic Party leadership we have barely even recognizes the rule of law, so why would it concern itself with something as comparatively trifling as ethics? This is Trump weaponizing the power of the presidency against one of their own, and they are already eager to defend the Biden family’s integrity on TV, even as Biden’s rivals like Elizabeth Warren or Julian Castro were calling for Trump’s impeachment months ago. If what Hunter Biden did was wrong, then so were the basic operating procedures of the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton family’s paid speeches and nepotistic gigs, and so is what scores of former Democratic officials and their family members do in Washington all the time to little notice.
In the best-case scenario, Biden’s presidential ambitions will be a casualty of this scandal, as the perception of his electability is chipped away by daily news coverage of his family’s ethical lapses. The whistleblower has already performed a great public service by exposing Trump’s latest misdeeds, a service that will only be compounded if Biden turns out to be collateral damage. But at the moment, Democrats seem eager to rush through impeachment as quickly and as narrowly as possible, passing what amounts to a vote to censure Trump for his conduct as a perfunctory gesture to their base. They are forgoing an opportunity to use impeachment in the manner that the New Republic’s Alex Pareene has proposed: “not a goal in and of itself, but a tool for ferreting out the truth.” In other words, they could be doing what many of us hoped they would do from the moment they won their majority: using their constitutionally enumerated powers to call witnesses under oath and to document the full scope of Trump’s crimes before a national audience and for the historical record.
But if Democrats did that, they would also raise the question of why they did nothing to stop any of these offenses as they were happening. They would cast a spotlight on the routine corruption that powered Washington long before Trump and that will likely outlast his sordid presidency. They would undermine their legitimacy and that of their Republican colleagues, every one of whom has been openly complicit in Trump’s criminality. And they would be treating impeachment as a means of genuine accountability, as opposed to a purely political maneuver that the public will most likely recognize as such.