The Question Posed by Trump’s Phone Call
A whistle-blower complaint raises the possibility that President Trump has betrayed the duties of his office.
On the 20th of July 1787, Gouverneur Morris rose inside the stiflingly hot Independence Hall, in Philadelphia, to explain why he had changed his mind and now favored including a power of impeachment in the constitutional text.
Until that point, he and others had feared that an impeachment power would leave the president too dependent on Congress. He had thought that the prospect of reelection defeat would offer a sufficient control on presidential wrongdoing.
But the arguments of other delegates had convinced him—and particularly an example from then-recent British history. A century earlier, Great Britain had been ruled by a king named Charles II. King Charles was the son of Charles I, the king whose head was cut off during the English Civil War. Restored to the throne, Charles II learned to tiptoe carefully around his dangerous subjects. But there was a problem: Charles wanted more money than Parliament willingly offered him. His solution? He reached out to an old friend and patron: the king of France, Louis XIV.
Louis had sheltered Charles during exile. He knew that Charles had converted to Catholicism—a secret that could have cost Charles his throne and possibly his life if his own people had known it. Louis had no parliament of his own to worry about. He paid Charles an annual subsidy to cover Charles’s fiscal shortfall. In return, he asked Charles to hand over a British base on French soil—and to stay neutral in the war Louis was about to launch against the Protestant Netherlands.
These treasons would emerge into daylight after the overthrow of Charles’s brother and the Stuart dynasty in 1688. For the men of 1787, these events of the century before their own felt as vivid and central as the civil-rights era of the mid-20th century seems to us nearing the middle of the 21st.
So Gouverneur Morris said, according to notes taken by James Madison:
He was now sensible of the necessity of impeachments, if the Executive was to continue for any time in office. Our Executive was not like a Magistrate having a life interest, much less like one having an hereditary interest in his office. He may be bribed by a greater interest to betray his trust; and no one would say that we ought to expose ourselves to the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay without being able to guard agst it by displacing him. One would think the King of England well secured agst bribery. He has as it were a fee simple in the whole Kingdom. Yet Charles II was bribed by Louis XIV. The Executive ought therefore to be impeachable for treachery; Corrupting his electors, and incapacity were other causes of impeachment. For the latter he should be punished not as a man, but as an officer, and punished only by degradation from his office. This Magistrate is not the King but the prime-Minister. The people are the King. When we make him amenable to Justice however we should take care to provide some mode that will not make him dependent on the Legislature.
Foreign corruption inducing treason was the core impeachable offense in the eyes of the authors of the Constitution.
Which is why a whistle-blower report filed with the inspector general for the intelligence community, reportedly concerning an improper “promise” by President Donald Trump to a foreign leader, has jolted Congress.
Earlier in the constitutional debates—back when he still opposed an impeachment provision—Morris argued that a corrupt or treasonable president “can do no criminal act without Coadjutors who may be punished.” Trump is surrounded by coadjutors, yet so far all are acting with impunity, joined now by the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, who is withholding from Congress the apparently explosive information.
Trump has been engaged in improper contacts with foreign governments for years, and built deep business relationships with foreign nationals. Russian assistance helped elect him. Money from wealthy Russians reportedly helped keep his businesses alive from 2006 to 2016. Since 2016, more and more foreign money has flowed Trump’s way. Trump literally has a hotel open on Pennsylvania Avenue to accept payments—there’s a big carpet in front, his name on the door, nothing even remotely clandestine about the flow of corruption. That corruption seeks returns. Again and again, Trump has acted in ways that align with the interests of foreign states, raising questions about his motives.
Exactly what was promised in this particular conversation, and to whom, America and the world wait to hear. Perhaps there exists a reasonable explanation for a conversation that the Trump administration is trying hard to keep from public view. But the basic grammar of all Trump scandals has been visible from the beginning: many secrets, no mysteries.