The president of the United States reportedly sought the help of a foreign government against an American citizen who might challenge him for his office. This is the single most important revelation in a scoop by The Wall Street Journal, and if it is true, then President Donald Trump should be impeached and removed from office immediately.
Until now, there was room for reasonable disagreement over impeachment as both a matter of politics and a matter of tactics. The Mueller report revealed despicably unpatriotic behavior by Trump and his minions, but it did not trigger a political judgment with a majority of Americans that it warranted impeachment. The Democrats, for their part, remained unwilling to risk their new majority in Congress on a move destined to fail in a Republican-controlled Senate.
Now, however, we face an entirely new situation. In a call to the new president of Ukraine, Trump reportedly attempted to pressure the leader of a sovereign state into conducting an investigation—a witch hunt, one might call it—of a U.S. citizen, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter Biden.
As the Ukrainian Interior Ministry official Anton Gerashchenko told the Daily Beast when asked about the president’s apparent requests, “Clearly, Trump is now looking for kompromat to discredit his opponent Biden, to take revenge for his friend Paul Manafort, who is serving seven years in prison.”
If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning. Trump’s grubby commandeering of the presidency’s fearsome and nearly uncheckable powers in foreign policy for his own ends is a gross abuse of power and an affront both to our constitutional order and to the integrity of our elections.
The story may even be worse than we know. If Trump tried to use military aid to Ukraine as leverage, as reporters are now investigating, then he held Ukrainian and American security hostage to his political vendettas. It means nothing to say that no such deal was reached; the important point is that Trump abused his position in the Oval Office.
In this matter, we need not rely on a newspaper account, nor even on the complaint, so far unseen, of a whistle-blower. Instead, we have a sweaty, panicked admission on national television by Trump’s bizarre homunculus, Rudy Giuliani, that he did in fact seek such an investigation on Trump’s behalf. Giuliani later again confirmed Trump’s role, tweeting that a “President telling a Pres-elect of a well known corrupt country he better investigate corruption that affects US is doing his job.”
Let us try, as we always find ourselves doing in the age of Trump, to think about how Americans might react if this happened in any other administration. Imagine, for example, if Bill Clinton had called his friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in 1996, and asked him to investigate Bob Dole. Or if George W. Bush had called, say, President Vicente Fox of Mexico in 2004 and asked him—indeed, asked him eight times, according to The Wall Street Journal—to open a case against John Kerry. Clinton, of course, was eventually impeached for far less than that. Is there any doubt that either man would have been put on trial in the Senate, and likely chased from office?
The Republicans, predictably, have decided to choose their party over their country, and the damage control and lying have begun. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, for one, has already floated the reliable “deep-state attack” nonsense that will play well on Fox and other conservative outlets. And while Giuliani did Trump no favors with his incoherent ranting on CNN, he did manage to hammer away at the idea that Biden, and not Trump, tried to shake down the Ukrainians while he was vice president.
The problem for Giuliani, the Republicans, and the president himself, however, is that Biden and his actions are now irrelevant to the offenses committed by Trump. The accusations against Joe Biden are false, as we know from multiple fact checks and from the Ukrainians themselves (which is why I won’t deign to repeat them here). But even to argue over this fable about Biden is to miss the point, because it changes nothing about Trump’s attempts to enmesh Biden in a foreign investigation for Trump’s own purposes.
There is no spin, no deflection, no alternative theory of the case that can get around the central fact that President Trump reportedly attempted to use his office for his own gain, and that he put the foreign policy and the national security of the United States at risk while doing so. He ignored his duty as the commander in chief by intentionally trying to place an American citizen in jeopardy with a foreign government. He abandoned his obligations to the Constitution by elevating his own interests over the national interest. By comparison, Watergate was a complicated judgment call.
In a better time and in a better country, Republicans would now join with Democrats and press for Trump’s impeachment. This won’t happen, of course; even many of Biden’s competitors for the presidency seem to be keeping their distance from this mess, perhaps in the hope that Biden and Trump will engage in a kind of mutually assured political destruction. (Elizabeth Warren, for one, renewed her call for impeachment—but without mentioning Biden.) This is to their shame. The Democratic candidates should now unite around a call for an impeachment investigation, not for Biden’s sake, but to protect the sanctity of our elections from a predatory president who has made it clear he will stop at nothing to stay in the White House.
I am speaking only for myself as an American citizen. I believe in our Constitution, and therefore I must accept that Donald Trump is the president and the commander in chief until the Congress or the people of the United States say otherwise. But if this kind of dangerous, unhinged hijacking of the powers of the presidency is not enough for either the citizens or their elected leaders to demand Trump’s removal, then we no longer have an accountable executive branch, and we might as well just admit that we have chosen to elect a monarch and be done with the illusion of constitutional order in the United States.