The Democrats grew a spine.
The detention camps weren’t enough. The policy of deliberate child torture was insufficient. The neglect of Americans displaced by natural disasters didn’t pass muster. The hush money shelled out to the president’s former mistresses in violation of federal law was too small a crime. The president using his office to enrich himself wasn’t sufficient. Deflecting blame from a foreign government’s effort to elect the president while seeking financial gain from that government, and then attempting to obstruct the investigation, was deemed too complicated to pursue.
But when the president attempted to use his authority to extort a foreign leader into implicating one of his political rivals, a former vice president and longtime Democratic senator, in criminal activity, the leadership of the Democratic Party seemed to suddenly recognize what it was facing. Millions of Americans wake up every day worried that Donald Trump’s actions will hurt someone they love, but until he used his authority to go after someone beloved by the Democratic establishment, party leaders didn’t quite grasp the urgency. If Trump could do this to Joe Biden, after all, he could do it to any of them. That’s often how it works in a democracy: People do the right thing for self-interested reasons.
In fairness to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the events that moved her to support impeachment after months of dismissing the left wing of her caucus are exactly what the Framers had in mind when they crafted the impeachment clause, which was to prevent a corrupt chief executive from using his official powers to keep himself in office. That precisely describes Trump’s use of his official powers to strong-arm a foreign government into implicating his political rivals. The Framers forced the chief executive to face election every four years in order to prevent the president from becoming a king, but they recognized that a corrupt president might use his powers to keep himself in office in perpetuity, and that impeachment was needed as a last resort. Yet Trump is only the most vulgar expression of the anti-democratic streak spreading in the Republican Party, and the forces that propelled his candidacy are the same ones that may shield him from accountability.
In July, President Trump ordered his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to withhold $400 million in aid that Congress had designated for Ukraine. Last month, the inspector general of the intelligence community told the chair and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Devin Nunes, that someone had filed an “urgent” and “credible” whistle-blower complaint. The day after Schiff formally requested the complaint, the Trump administration released the hundreds of millions of dollars it had been withholding.
Media outlets, which had been reporting on efforts by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who was on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, revealed that the complaint was related to that effort. Days after withholding aid to Ukraine, according to a White House summary of the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate the Bidens. Zelensky brought up an impending sale of American Javelin missiles to Ukraine, to which Trump replied, “I would like you to do us a favor, though.”
Apparently under the belief that Ukraine is somehow in possession of the Democratic National Committee’s servers that were hacked in a Russian effort to swing the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, Trump asked Zelensky to “get to the bottom of it,” because of his belief that the Russia investigation “started with Ukraine.” Trump then repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate the Bidens, and to speak to Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr about them, suggesting that if Ukraine would not prosecute Trump’s political rivals, it provide the U.S. Justice Department with a pretext for doing so.
Trump himself helpfully summarized the point of the call a few days ago, although he insisted that he had not tied aid to going after the Bidens. “The conversation I had was largely congratulatory. It was largely corruption—all of the corruption taking place. It was largely the fact that we don’t want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to [sic] the corruption already in the Ukraine.” As Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen testified before Congress, like any organized-crime boss, the president understands how to communicate his demands implicitly. Even so, the summary of the call makes clear Trump’s message that if Zelensky wants the promised military aid, he must accede to Trump’s requests.
All of this not only amounts to an act of extortion by the president, but turns hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into the payoff for a bribe designed to compel a foreign power to criminalize a political rival.
Democrats should now realize that it does not matter whom they run against Trump. He will seek to discredit any opponent not through campaigning, but through the corrupt abuse of his official powers. The fact that Justice Department prosecutors saw no “thing of value” being exchanged with Ukraine that could provide a predicate for criminal prosecution, that it helped suppress the whistle-blower report, and that Barr—at least in the president’s mind—would be a party to a corrupt scheme to damage a political opponent suggest that federal law enforcement will not stand in the way when the time comes.
As Jeffrey Engel writes in Impeachment: An American History, the authors of the Constitution foresaw the possibility of a corrupt president who abuses his power to stay in office. James Madison argued at the Constitutional Convention that it was “indispensable that some provision should be made for defending the community against the incapacity, negligence, or perfidy of the chief magistrate.” George Mason asked, “Shall the man who has practised corruption and by that means procured his appointment in the first instance, be suffered to escape punishment, by repeating his guilt?” And as Gouverneur Morris concisely put it, “This Magistrate is not the King but the Prime Minister. The people are the King.”
This is one reason that perceptions among Democrats shifted so fast. In a republic, the people are sovereign. The president used his authority to criminalize or suppress his political rivals, in violation of the people’s right to choose their leadership. His acts exemplify the scenario the Framers feared when they contemplated a corrupt president using executive power to keep himself in office, unaccountable to the people who elected him. Trump’s conduct here is not just impeachable; it is why the impeachment clause exists.
What the Framers may not have contemplated, however, is the extent to which a demagogue is capable of convincing his supporters that the president and the people are one and the same, and therefore, the president is incapable of betraying the people, because he is their purest expression made flesh. Trump is but a crass distillation of this anti-democratic idea, but if it were not deeply rooted in the Republican Party, he could never have ascended to its leadership.
Already, Republicans have sought to dismiss Trump’s explicit attempt to extort a foreign leader into criminalizing a political rival by denying that the summary of the call shows what it shows. Republican legislators believe there is nothing the president could do to lose the support of the people who put them in office, and so there is no political benefit to acknowledging his misconduct, even though they would immediately demand the impeachment or resignation of any Democratic president who did the same thing. In the 1990s, Republicans impeached Bill Clinton over his false denials of sexual impropriety; they would not hesitate to impeach a Democratic president who withheld foreign aid to extract a smear of his Republican rivals.
But behind this unfailing submission to Trump also lie more troubling influences. As the parties have become more racially polarized, and the Republican Party has become more exclusively white and Christian, Republicans have begun to think of themselves as the only genuinely legitimate actors in the polity. This is why Republicans draw districts that hand them more offices even when they fail to win a majority of the votes; it is why Republican legislatures strip Democratic executives of their powers when the electorate foils their efforts to rig elections in their favor; it is why the Trump administration attempted a fraudulent scheme to use the census to diminish the influence of minority voters relative to white voters; it is why Republicans seek to pass laws intended to suppress minority votes; it is why every night on Fox News, viewers hear one host after another outline deranged conspiracies about how Democrats want to steal America from its rightful white owners through demographic change.
Attempts to strip minorities of their rightful place in the polity are a bipartisan American tradition. They emerge whenever one party becomes beholden to an ethnically diverse constituency, and the other answers almost exclusively to white Christians. The contest between the universalist principles espoused by the Founders and their sectarian application in practice has been the principal conflict of American democracy since the beginning.
The peaceful transition of power is fundamental to democracy, but many Republicans have concluded that it is not possible for that to occur legitimately. Without such transitions, democracy is a dead letter. But if your political enemies are inherently illegitimate, then depriving them of power by any means necessary is not effacing democracy; it is defending it. The southern Democrats who stripped black Americans of the franchise at the end of Reconstruction using a battery of literacy tests, property requirements, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses saw themselves not as crippling democracy but as strengthening it, by limiting the ballot to those who were worthy of participating.
The Republican belief that their opposition is inherently illegitimate is one reason it does not matter to many Republicans that Trump’s allegations that Biden sought to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to prevent his son from being investigated are baseless. As CNN’s Daniel Dale has documented, there is no public evidence that Hunter Biden was ever himself under investigation; the prosecutor whose firing Biden called for as vice president was widely considered corrupt; the investigation Biden supposedly shut down was “dormant” at the time Biden expressed the view of the Obama administration that the prosecutor should be fired; and the reason world leaders, including Barack Obama, were demanding his firing in the first place was that he was failing to investigate corruption in Ukraine, not that he was being prevented from doing so. As my colleague David Graham writes, “Biden’s pressure to install a tougher prosecutor probably made it more likely, not less, that Burisma would be in the cross hairs.”
Attempting to use one’s official powers for private gain is the most basic definition of corruption. Yet because the base of the Republican Party believes itself to be the only legitimate expression of popular will, whether or not its members constitute an actual majority of the electorate, it does not matter what Trump’s motives are. Much of the Republican base believes, as Trump does, that loyalty to the country and loyalty to himself are one and the same. Therefore, nothing Trump could do is corrupt, and even using his official powers for personal gain is an act of selfless patriotism. In this warped view, attempting to extort foreign countries into attacking his political rivals is not a betrayal of his responsibilities as president; it is the fullest expression of them.
Unless Republican support for Trump craters, Republican legislators will not turn against him. And Republican support for Trump cannot crater as long as many Republicans view their political rivals as illegitimate political actors rather than fellow citizens.
This is daunting, but it makes the Democratic leadership’s decision to commit to an impeachment inquiry all the more vital. Democrats may not prevail in removing Trump through impeachment, or by the ballot. But democracy cannot function as a single-party institution in which the authority of the state is a mere instrument for one faction to maintain power in perpetuity. Legislators have a moral obligation, outlined by the Framers themselves, to protect American democracy from such an assault. They may fail, but failing to try would be an unforgivable disgrace.
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