The Mad King’s Enablers

As Trump’s demands grow ever more erratic, democracy rests on the willingness of bureaucrats to ignore the democratically elected chief executive.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

This morning, President Donald Trump committed an impeachable offense on camera.

Responding to questioning from reporters about his effort to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to launch an investigation into one of his Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump reiterated his demand that Ukraine “start a major investigation into the Bidens,” before suggesting that “China should start an investigation into the Bidens” as well.

Ukraine is dependent on the United States for military aid; China is in the midst of a trade war with the U.S. instigated by Trump. Both countries now know that they can influence United States policy by pursuing the president’s personal, political interests. A president using his authority to form an alliance with foreign powers, at the expense of the national interest, is such a straightforwardly impeachable offense that the Framers themselves designed the impeachment clause for the express purpose of removing a chief executive who uses his powers in this way.

Republicans have attempted to shift the conversation away from Trump’s acts, to focus instead on questions about the process used by the whistle-blower who exposed Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine. But not only did Schiff and the whistle-blower follow the rules; both the redacted complaint released by the White House and the summary of the call itself substantiate the allegations at the center of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. And even if they didn’t, the president himself just repeated the impeachable offense on camera, making an explicit demand that two countries criminalize his political rival.

It was not even the first time this week that Trump demanded a political rival be investigated. For the past few days, Trump has demanded that House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff be “questioned at the highest level for Fraud & Treason” for a mocking paraphrase of Trump’s call with Zelensky using mafia-like language.

The accusation of treason is absurd. The Constitution specifically protects the remarks of legislators on the House floor, secures freedom of speech, and defines treason in extremely narrow terms, limiting it to “levying war” against the U.S. or aiding its enemies. But Trump makes no distinction between loyalty to him as a person and loyalty to the United States, and so takes criticism as treason.

Yet despite the president’s bluster, nothing happened. The Justice Department did not arrest and imprison Schiff, arraigning him on charges of treason. And that reality speaks to both the absurdity and danger of this moment, in which American democracy relies on the willingness of executive-branch subordinates to ignore the ravings of the Mad King. This extends into the realm of policy, where Trump’s own officials have struggled to contain his lust for cruelty, refusing requests to gun down migrants or install a moat with alligators at the border.

Elected Republicans know that Trump is unfit for office. The president’s own subordinates know that Trump is unfit for office. They know this, because when the president issues ridiculous orders, such as the demand that a leader of the opposition party be arrested, they ignore his demands. A nation in which the opposition cannot criticize the head of state without facing criminal sanction is not a democracy, but it is the kind of country over which Donald Trump would like to preside. The result is that American democracy rests on the willingness of bureaucrats to ignore the commands of their democratically elected chief executive.

Unable to defend the substance of the president’s extortion attempt, Republicans have turned to complaining about the process. But Thursday’s performance on the White House lawn renders those baseless complaints moot—the president just did publicly what the Democrats have accused him of doing privately. The only argument against removing Trump from office is that Trump’s raving is just Trump being Trump, and is not to be taken seriously. But the fact that the president’s madness must be ignored from time to time for America to continue to function as a democracy is an argument for, not against, his removal.

Although congressional Democrats and Republicans are divided on impeachment, there is vanishingly little disagreement on whether or not Trump abuses his authority or is fit to be president. The distinction is that, for the moment, Republicans appear not to care.