“Suppose a president were to announce that he would in no circumstances appoint any Roman Catholic to office and were rigorously to stick to this plan,” Charles L. Black Jr. wondered in his 1974 book Impeachment: A Handbook. “Suppose a president were to announce and follow a policy of granting full pardons, in advance of indictment or trial, to all federal agents or police who killed anybody in line of duty, in the District of Columbia, whatever the circumstances and however unnecessary the killing?”
In the throes of Watergate, the Yale professor pondered the question: Must a president commit an indictable offense to be impeached? Black imagined a range of noncrimes that might justify removing a president from office. The two I quoted are the climax of a series of increasing ominousness.
But even Black’s inventive mind did not foresee what we all just saw on ABC: the president confessing in advance that he would accept stolen information from a hostile foreign intelligence agency if it were to help his presidential campaign.
“There’s nothing wrong with listening,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ I think I’d want to hear it.”
This confession carries heavy implications, starting with the question of whether Donald Trump Jr. lied to Congress when he denied telling his father in advance about the famous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, in which he believed that a representative of the Russian government would be offering dirt on the Hillary Clinton campaign.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report found that the Donald Trump campaign desperately wished to collude with Russian intelligence—but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone in the campaign had actually done so. But after three years and the special counsel’s investigation? Trump acknowledges that he would do it all again, if given the chance.
Will he be given the chance, whether by Russia or China or Saudi Arabia or Abu Dhabi or Israel or Pakistan—or, for that matter, any number of foreign non-state actors, legitimate or criminal, with intelligence-gathering capabilities?
Yoni Appelbaum argued in an important cover story for The Atlantic in favor of opening an impeachment inquiry into the president. I worried some weeks later on this site about the political and institutional risks of proceeding down that path. But Trump himself gets a vote; Trump himself forces the hands even of those who might wish to restrain the hands. He is such an institution-wrecker—his instincts are so lawless—that he may simply refuse to allow Congress not to impeach him.
Confessing a willingness to collaborate with foreign spies against his domestic political opponents is a hand-forcing move. The risks of proceeding are still there. But the risks of not proceeding? Trump just forced us all to confront them in the most aggressively public possible way.