This litany demonstrates beyond any doubt that, as David Kris has written, Trump “used the carrots and sticks of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy, and at least attempted to use certain counterintelligence and law enforcement tools, to damage a political opponent. This represents a profoundly corrupt misuse of the machinery of government for personal gain.”
It’s important to stress, however, that even without these surrounding circumstances (or even if some of them depend on contested facts), what’s within the four corners of the White House account of the July 25 call, standing alone, reflects a gross abuse of office.
It also easily satisfies the constitutional standards for impeachment. Recent debates about whether Trump violated federal election law are misplaced and trivialize what’s really at stake here. The president’s derelictions are far more profound and more fundamental to the constitutional order than a mere violation of the criminal code. To use the scholar Charles Black’s canonical test for whether impeachment is warranted, Trump engaged in (1) extremely serious conduct that (2) corrupts or subverts the political and governmental process and “tend[s] seriously to undermine and corrupt the political order,” and (3) is “plainly wrong in [itself] to a person of honor, or to a good citizen, regardless of words on the statute books.”
Indeed, Black’s hypothetical case illuminating the operation of this test was eerily prescient: “Suppose,” he wrote, that “a president were shown by convincing evidence to have used the federal tax system consistently and massively as a means of harassing and punishing his political opponents. As far as I know, this conduct is not criminal in the ordinary sense. But does such gross misuse of what is supposed to be a politically neutral arm of government not tend seriously to undermine and corrupt the political order? Is it not obviously wrong, to any man of ordinary honor? If these questions are answered ‘yes,’ then this offense, as lawyers might say, is eiusdem generis, of the same kind, with treason and bribery … If it is not a crime under statute, then it is the kind of offense which ought to be held impeachable, though not criminal in the ordinary sense.”
And yet there’s another important feature of Donald Trump’s conduct with respect to the July 25 phone call, one that hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves, that provides even more compelling proof of his unfitness to serve as chief executive—namely, what Trump thinks and says about that phone call today.
Trump doesn’t deny that he urged Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. Yet he’s not the least bit contrite about it. He doesn’t admit that he erred in an unguarded moment, and he certainly will never pledge to refrain from ever using his diplomatic authorities to advance his own electoral prospects. To the contrary: Trump insists that his conversation was “pitch perfect.” Just as he believes an attorney general’s job is to protect the president, regardless of any ethics constraints or norms of prosecutorial independence from the White House, it appears Trump sincerely believes there’s nothing wrong with using the levers of presidential diplomacy, and control of military aid, to induce foreign officials to dig up dirt on his political opponents. (The Washington Post reports that “even privately, Trump did not believe his conversation with the Ukrainian president was problematic, according to four people with whom he spoke.”)