Michael Gerhardt: The impeachment inquiry is fully legitimate
The bribe would be obvious to everyone if Trump and the people acting on his behalf had told the Ukrainians, We’ll release your military aid, but do us the favor of contributing $1 million to Trump 2020.
Instead, they pressed Ukraine for a favor as valuable to Trump 2020 as $1 million: They asked Ukraine to launch, or at least to announce, a corruption investigation into the Biden family. In return, Team Trump implied, Ukraine would get its military aid or an Oval Office meeting.
Trump asked for a favor that would benefit him politically and tied it to foreign aid. He sought a thing he valued because it would help him get reelected with the implied promise that it would change his behavior as president.
It doesn’t matter that Ukraine didn’t deliver the thing of value––mere solicitation of a bribe is verboten. Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich went to prison for soliciting money in exchange for an appointment to the U.S. Senate. It didn’t matter that he never got paid. The recording of his request was enough.
The bribery charge sticks to Trump whether one looks to federal law or to the understanding of bribery in the era of the Framers.
Aaron Blake reports on current law at The Washington Post:
The federal bribery statute says someone has committed bribery if he or she is a “public official” who “directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally … in return for … being influenced in the performance of any official act.” The argument here would be that Trump sought politically helpful investigations from Ukraine in exchange for releasing military aid and/or granting a much-sought Oval Office meeting for its president, Volodymyr Zelensky. To date, six officials have said there was some kind of quid pro quo there.
As for bribery as the Framers understood it, a trio of attorneys writing at Lawfare quote 18th- and early-19th-century legal treatises to show that the constitutional understanding was even broader than what federal law now prohibits––put simply, bribery was “understood as an officeholder’s abuse of the power of an office to obtain a private benefit rather than for the public interest.”
They go on to explain:
The understanding of bribery at the Founding maps perfectly onto Trump’s conduct in his call with Zelensky. As noted above, Trump made clear to Zelensky that he was asking him for a “favor”—not a favor to benefit the United States as a whole or the public interest, but a favor that would accrue to the personal benefit of Trump by harming his political rival. Trump’s request that Zelensky work with his private attorney, Rudy Giuliani, underscores that Trump was seeking a private benefit. And Trump was not seeking this “undue reward” (to quote “Russell on Crimes” and the Delaware statute) as a mere aside unrelated to the president’s official role. Rather, he did so in the course of an official diplomatic conversation with a head-of-state.
In fact, Rudy Giuliani has since stated, “The investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption, was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges, that kept changing as one after another were disproven,” characterizing his own actions as something not done to benefit the American people, but done “solely” to benefit Trump.