Of course, a slew of direct evidence bolsters the first article of impeachment, including the notes of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he asked for the “favor” of investigating former Vice President Joe Biden’s family; Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony that Trump asked about the Biden investigations on a call the next day; Trump’s own public admission that he decided to withhold $391 million in Ukrainian aid in advance of the July 25 conversation; and his self-incriminating September 18 statement, after a reporter asked about the Zelensky call, that “someone ought to look into Joe Biden.”
If Trump escapes removal, as expected, the net effect of his impeachment will be that an extraordinarily well-documented misuse of presidential powers for personal gain does not warrant removal from office.
In short, history is throwing a one-two punch at the legislature’s power to impeach a president. Crimes are not enough without abuse of office, and abuse of office is not enough without crimes. (Even a documented abuse of office accompanied by proof of crimes probably wouldn’t have swayed Republicans in the current Senate. Bribery is both a crime and an express constitutional basis for impeachment, and Democrats could have impeached Trump on that ground, but the effect would likely be no different.) As a result, Americans might as well grab a permanent marker and cross the word impeachment out of the Constitution’s text, at least as it relates to presidents.
To be sure, this would not be the first constructive amendment of the Constitution—that is, one that altered the basic workings of the federal government through day-to-day practice, bypassing the laborious constitutional process of securing two-thirds of both houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states. Congress’s exclusive power to declare war has been eroded as lawmakers have deferred to the White House on military intervention after military intervention. Under the current administration, Congress has all but conceded the emoluments clause, any plain reading of which would prevent Trump’s family business from accepting payments from foreign governments. The appropriations clause prohibits Trump from paying for a border wall by unilaterally diverting money away from congressionally authorized uses, but this clause, too, is succumbing to neglect.
The peculiar problem with excising impeachment from the Constitution, though, is that it will dramatically enlarge one branch of government over the others. The Department of Justice has long taken the institutional position that the judicial branch cannot be invoked to prosecute crimes by a president in office. The Nixon-era announcement of that internal policy left the legislature as the only remaining check that can ensure that the president is subject to the law. This safeguard will vanish, too, if the Senate lets Trump off.