A Shared Text, but No Shared Reality

The debate about President Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president

Four people sit on a stage in front of a sign that reads "The Battle for the Constitution"
Kristoffer Tripplaar

Did President Donald Trump commit an offense that the Framers would regard as impeachable in his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky?

A non-verbatim memo describing the call has been available since yesterday. But a common text has done little to create consensus. Indeed, no question is more hotly contested in Washington. And rival factions offered their respective views Wednesday at the Atlantic Festival.

During a panel discussion on the Constitution, Lawfare’s managing editor, Quinta Jurecic, said Trump’s behavior clearly surpassed the Framers’ threshold for impeachment.

“Not only does it fit that definition,” she commented, “I think it’s actually a paradigm of what we might look to as an impeachable offense.” In her telling, impeachment at its core is “focused on abuse of power on the part of the chief executive, particularly abuse of power for personal gain at the expense of the country.”

When Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden and his son, she reasoned, the president seemed to be attempting to pressure the Ukrainian president to provide derogatory information about a political rival’s family.

“That’s not only an abuse of the president’s foreign-affairs power for personal gain, as opposed to the betterment of the country,” she said. “It’s also a gross civil-liberties violation of Biden and his son. In part because of actions taken by Richard Nixon, we bind our law-enforcement agencies very tightly in terms of what they can and can’t investigate. There are processes that they have to go through.”

But Trump, she said, was attempting to subvert that process by asking a foreign government to investigate American citizens to benefit him politically.

The Heritage Foundation’s John Malcolm offered a contradictory analysis. “Abuse of power can constitute an impeachable offense and we are going to learn more facts,” he offered. “I think it is quite a stretch to say based on the transcript released today that we are anywhere near that threshold. There was no threat explicitly or implicitly to withhold aid from the Ukraine government during this call.”

Where Trump critics see nefarious implications, he sees ambiguity. In the context of the call, he argued, it seems to him that President Trump was more interested in how the investigation into his 2016 campaign began than the Ukrainian investigation into a firm that employed Biden’s son.

What’s more, he continued, Biden’s son did seem to earn a suspicious amount of money from a Ukrainian company given his dearth of experience in the relevant field.

“I’m not excusing what the president did,” he insisted, but added, “he often acts in an intemperate manner.” (Side note: That would seem to imply that a pattern of intemperance is somehow mitigating.) “Look,” he concluded, “I think it is very unclear from what we know now. I certainly don’t see the Senate being anywhere near being ready to have two-thirds of the body conclude that the president is ready to be voted out of office.”

Two members of Congress who took the stage after Jurecic and Malcolm, one a Republican and the other a Democrat, also gave dramatically different interpretations of the Ukraine situation.

Republican Congressman Lance Gooden asserted that Democrats know the phone call isn’t a slam-dunk case for impeachment, even though he declared it “hard to defend.” When my colleague Elaina Plott asked if he would object if a Democratic president urged a foreign leader to investigate a GOP rival, he evaded the question.

But Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff claimed that if Republicans looked at identical behavior from a politician who didn’t have an R beside his name, they would immediately conclude that a grave, impeachable offense had been perpetrated. “We knew that courage is contagious,” he declared. “What we’ve learned during the presidency of Donald Trump is that so is cowardice.”

On the initial, binary question of whether Trump perpetrated an offense that the Framers would regard as impeachable, there is only one correct answer. But the two factions might as well inhabit different realities, given their divergent rhetoric and conclusions. And many Americans will react by aligning with their tribe.

Impeachable or not, Trump’s behavior is tearing the country apart.