The impeachment inquiry against President Trump took an important turn in the first House Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday.
Judging by the opening remarks of Chairman Jerry Nadler and the opening testimony of constitutional law professors, congressional Democrats are moving away from bribery. Instead, they have shifted their impeachment case, now accusing the president of having abused his office.
Before this latest hearing, it was peculiar that there were yet no proposed articles of impeachment. In prior impeachment cases, legal experts have been called to offer their views on such articles the House had already formulated. That is, the experts were asked to determine whether the allegations squared with the Framers’ conception of impeachable offenses, namely, “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Those impeachment cases, however, involved clear allegations of law-breaking. With Trump, the difficulty Democrats have had from the start is the lack of a clear law violation.
They allege that the president pressured Ukraine’s government — delaying the transfer of defense aid and a White House visit coveted by the country’s new president — to induce Kiev to announce investigations that would be helpful to Trump politically.
Democrats have struggled to come up with a crime on these facts. They have tried labeling the behavior a campaign finance violation, an extortion crime and seemed finally to settle on bribery — evidently, it polled better than “quid pro quo” and other less catchy forms of misconduct.
Yet bribery remained problematic, since there was no actual bribe in the common-sense understanding of that term. The Ukrainians, for example, got their defense aid, and Trump didn’t insist on any announcement of investigations, much less the conduct of them.
It certainly helps to have a prosecutable crime to impeach a president. Politically speaking, it is very difficult to convince the American people of the necessity of removing a president from power without proving that he broke the law. But as a matter of constitutional law, such proof isn’t required.
The Framers were most concerned about abuses of power. It is therefore theoretically permissible to impeach and remove a president for what Alexander Hamilton described as “political” wrongs, betrayals of the public trust.
Realizing this, Democrats appear to have arrived at a new strategy. First, invite testimony from law professors of the anti-Trump bent of mind (they’re not hard to find). Then, have them outline the abuse of power with an eye toward the themes Democrats have been pressing as they’ve groped to implicate Trump in a crime — using public power for private political advantage, the corruption of elections, intrigue with foreign potentates.
Finally, instead of having the legal experts comment on articles of impeachment that the Judiciary Committee has already written, the committee will write articles of impeachment that track the testimony they have adduced from the experts. It thus becomes a self-fulfilling conclusion that impeachable offenses have been proved.
“Of course, we have high crimes and misdemeanors,” Democrats will argue, “we’ve charged the very abuse of power described by the impeachment experts.”
Naturally, this strategy shifts the focus of the impeachment hearings from the facts of the Ukraine episode to the abstract legal principles of impeachment. This helps Democrats: The Ukraine facts turn out to be much ado about not much — for all the huffing and puffing, Kiev’s security against Russia wasn’t compromised, and the Ukrainians didn’t undertake any investigations of Trump’s political opponents in America. If you were trying to impeach on those facts, you would find it far easier to talk about airy principles.
Of course, that wasn’t enough for the Framers.
They didn’t just wrestle with the principles, colonial precedents and British common law of impeachable offenses. They quite intentionally made impeachment hard to do politically. The real question is not: How do you define abuse of power? It is: Is there misconduct so egregious that a public consensus for stripping the president of power will form — such that a two-thirds supermajority of the Senate will vote to convict and remove?
All presidents abuse their powers at one point or another. If “abuse of power” is now the standard for impeachment, every future president will be vulnerable. So will we. We will regularly experience all of the societal divisiveness and governmental dysfunction that impeachment inevitably produces.
Andrew C. McCarthy, a former chief assistant US attorney, is a contributing editor of National Review. Twitter: @AndrewCMcCarthy
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