With a single telephone call, Donald Trump betrayed the presidency in ways almost unimaginable until that moment. During the call, he attempted to pressure a foreign leader to help him smear and destroy both a chief political opponent and that opponent’s political party to benefit himself in a presidential election. This offense differs from all his other transgressions, venal corruptions, and daily degradations of the office. It is an attack on the foundations of our republic, turning diplomacy into a weapon of personal and partisan political power. The nation’s founders understood, having fought a revolution against monarchy, that no government of the people was invulnerable to such egregious abuses of power. They were particularly concerned, as Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, that a president, through “cabal, intrigue, and corruption,” might help “foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” In their wisdom, they created a mechanism to halt this disloyal corruption in its tracks: impeachment.
Impeachment is a severe measure of last resort, which ought to be used only in the most extreme cases. In the United States, the voters are supposed to decide who governs. That’s what the Framers of the Constitution had in mind when they formed a new government in which, at every level, ultimate sovereignty lay in “We, the People.” Elections legitimately won cannot be illegitimately undone at the whim of a faction or party. They should only be undone by throwing the bum out at the next election.
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What happens, though, if a president uses the powers of office to disrupt the next election? What if that president does so by brazenly enlisting the aid of a hostile foreign power? Or if he does so by trying in secret to extort cooperation from a foreign ally threatened by that same hostile power? What if the president has denied the existence of an ongoing systematic cyberattack from the hostile power, which every U.S. intelligence service calls a clear and present threat to our democracy? What if the actions of that president raise urgent questions about the legitimacy of the next election and cast a darker cloud over how he gained the office in the first place?
There have been earlier impeachments and interferences with democratic institutions in our history, but nothing like this one. In this, as he likes to say, Trump truly stands alone. He has assaulted American democracy, claimed he has the authority to do so, and dared anybody to do anything about it, dismissing with contempt Congress’ clear constitutional authority to oversee and check the executive branch. He thinks he can use the office of the presidency as a personal instrument, along with private emissaries, to desecrate the rule of law and then protect himself from the consequences. He even declares in public that he is the law, claiming that, according to Article II of the Constitution, “I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” Not even the most corrupt and criminal of our previous presidents has tried to pervert our most sacred institutions as openly as Trump has.
At the dawn of the republic, during the troubled 1790s, the incumbent administration of President John Adams took extraordinary actions against a mounting opposition led by Vice President Thomas Jefferson, arguably interfering with national politics more directly than Trump. By signing the repressive Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, Adams outlawed public criticism of himself or any member of Congress. More than 20 Republican newspaper editors went to jail, as did a Vermont congressman. Yet as Congress had initiated the new laws, there was never a question of impeaching Adams. What Jefferson called “the reign of witches” would end only when Adams very narrowly lost re-election to the Virginian in 1800.
Seventy years later, after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson systematically undermined congressional policy on Reconstruction. Impeached by the House, the vituperative, self-dramatizing racist Johnson escaped removal by a single vote in the Senate, and was not renominated. (Seven years later, after violence by the Ku Klux Klan helped to overthrow Reconstruction in his home state of Tennessee, Johnson was elected to the Senate and claimed vindication, but months later, felled by a pair of strokes, he died, a hero to ex-Confederates.)
Through the succeeding turbulent century, every president faced accusations of misconduct, including, in some cases, overstepping the constitutional limits of the office. None, however, abused their powers for political ends in ways that seriously raised the possibility of impeachment. That would have to await the presidency of Richard M. Nixon.
In 1972, Nixon and his aides committed the acts that led to his eventual resignation from office — including acts that resemble what Trump is accused of. We remember Watergate mainly for the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. Yet it quickly came to light that it was only one incident in a massive operation of political spying and sabotage carried on by Nixon’s re-election campaign. A high point of that operation was a phony letter written by Nixon functionaries claiming that the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Edmund Muskie, had condoned the use of an ethnic slur against French Canadians. Nixon feared Muskie above all the other Democrats — much as Trump is said to fear Joe Biden. The forged accusation circulated by Nixon’s self-styled “ratfuckers” set off a chain of events that led to Muskie’s withdrawal and the eventual nomination of George McGovern, whom Nixon then duly trounced in November.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan defied the Constitution in the so-called Iran-Contra affair, violating a congressional ban on aid to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua while funding the operation by diverting funds from clandestine sales of arms to Iran. Reagan, who testified that he did not recall approving any of it, survived intense congressional inquiry. But the effects of the scandal lingered. In 1992, a special-counsel investigation was closing in on implicating President George H.W. Bush, who had been Reagan’s vice president, in the Iran-Contra disaster. Bush’s attorney general helped figure out how to upend the investigation — which at the very least would have forever stained Bush’s reputation and helped ensure the conviction of several indicted Bush associates — by issuing some timely pardons. That attorney general was named William Barr — the same William Barr now serving Trump.
The Clinton impeachment bears the least resemblance to the Trump crisis. After investigating Clinton for five years and coming up with nothing, Republicans got wind of an extramarital liaison with an intern, Monica Lewinsky, and alerted independent counsel Ken Starr. Starr’s office lured Clinton into a perjury trap — the sort of dissembling about sex that few district attorneys would then have bothered to pursue as a crime. The case for impeachment was so flimsy that, even in a polarized Congress, more Republicans defected than Democrats. Unlike in the Johnson impeachment, Clinton came nowhere close to conviction.
Now consider Trump’s current crisis. Leave aside most of what his critics have been railing about since the 2016 election, every offense from the Stormy Daniels hush-money payoffs to Trump using the presidency to profit financially in violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause. Focus simply on the Ukraine transcript and the whistle-blower complaint that helped bring the transcript to light. Trump and his defenders have attacked the whistle-blower, a national security professional, as a partisan hack who didn’t even listen to the phone call in question. Yet according to the transcript — which the White House itself released — the conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reads exactly as the whistle-blower described it, a naked attempt to pressure Ukraine into assisting in sliming Joe Biden.
Trump’s most ardent defenders, led by Sen. Lindsey Graham, called the transcript a “nothing (non-quid pro quo) burger” because it did not show Trump laying out an explicit deal: You investigate the DNC hacking conspiracy theory and the Bidens, and you’ll get the $391 million in military aid. But it was crystal clear: The Ukrainian president is deeply dependent on the U.S. for military support against Russia. Trump pointedly notes that the U.S. has indeed been good to the Ukrainians, even if the largesse was not reciprocated. Cutting short the Ukrainian president’s flattery, Trump asks for a “favor” to investigate allegations that might dig up dirt on his opponent. If Zelensky expected the U.S. to remain supportive, it was obvious that he’d better do Trump’s political bidding. Moreover, as of this writing, a second whistle-blower has come forward confirming the first’s complaint, and text messages between U.S. diplomats have come to light that only reinforce the case: Trump was using the levers of diplomatic power abroad to harm his political opponents at home.
Even if there weren’t the issue of military aid, Trump’s request would be a severe abuse of presidential power. Never before in our history has a president been known to approach a foreign leader in this way, asking for specific action against domestic political adversaries.
The transcript reads like an organized-crime shakedown. A man comes to the all-powerful crime boss full of praise for the boss’s greatness and for all he has done. The boss replies, Well, yes, I’ve been very good to you. Perhaps it’s not been reciprocated. So I’m going to ask you to do me a favor — come to think of it, two favors. Don Corleone couldn’t have said it any better. In real life, though, this isn’t a case of a crime boss extorting some individual or corporation; it is an American president turning the nation’s foreign policy toward his personal political gain. It is exactly the sort of thing Hamilton had in mind when he wrote in the Federalist Papers about impeachment being used to punish “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
It is also against our national interest: Ukraine is battling Russian forces that occupy about one-third of its territory. Trump has publicly stated his indifference to the brutal Russian invasion; the whistle-blower’s complaint remarked on how Trump has told reporters that Zelensky “is going to make a deal with President Putin, and he will be invited to the White House.” Trump repeated himself while meeting with Zelensky at the United Nations after the whistle-blower crisis began, stating that he hoped the Ukrainian president would “get together” with Putin to “solve your problem” — another unsubtle bit of pressure. Trump is leaning on a beleaguered purported foreign ally to surrender to a powerful purported foe — a relentless foe that has attacked and is still attacking our democracy.
One of the most severe charges in the whistle-blower complaint, to which the White House has actually confessed, is that administration officials, recognizing the political sensitivity of Trump’s attempt to extort Ukraine, had the transcript placed on a highly classified server not open to the usual top-level officials. The complaint also notes that this was not the first time such a transcript was put into “lock down.” Other suspicious calls, with Putin as well as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, reportedly were also unusually restricted. So was a call with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, during which Trump tried to get Morrison to help discredit the origins of the Mueller investigation. A common remark during the Watergate scandal was that the cover-up was worse than the crime. That doesn’t seem to hold in Trump’s case, given the seriousness of the crime, but the cover-up on its own would be grounds for impeachment.
The whistle-blower’s complaint as well as the transcript are also clear about the possible complicity and culpability of Rudy Giuliani and William Barr in Trump’s corruption. In his conversation with Zelensky, Trump repeatedly referred to Giuliani and Barr as his representatives, in effect his consiglieres, with whom he would like the Ukrainians to work. Having a private citizen such as Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, act as a formal diplomatic go-between with a foreign power in order to advance Trump’s political interests is an outrageous violation of the public trust. Worse, perhaps, it seems clear that Barr has acted not as an attorney general sworn to uphold the Constitution but, in effect, as another private Trump attorney, spending his time and the taxpayers’ money to assist Trump’s re-election effort. Subsequent revelations that Barr has traveled abroad to pressure foreign governments into cooperating with a probe alleging that the CIA and FBI conspired to gin up the Mueller investigation affirm that impression. Nixon had his henchmen, bagmen, and go-betweens, many of whom wound up in prison; Giuliani and Barr have acted even more brazenly as Trump’s collaborators, in what has the earmarks of a continuing criminal conspiracy.
In all, the unfolding Ukraine scandal provides compelling evidence that Trump committed crimes against the Constitution that dwarf Nixon’s offenses. In response, Trump and his defenders have resorted to the Nixon playbook of evasion, stonewalling, and distraction, although with a belligerence that would have surprised and impressed even Nixon and his most die-hard co-conspirators. In an extraordinary letter to Congress, Trump’s White House counsel made clear the administration had no intention of cooperating with what it considered a “partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.”
Any impeachment, of course, is by definition a traumatic event, undertaking the gravest of political actions against a public figure who still has his share of ardent supporters. Given the polarization of our politics today, and the furious attachment of Trump’s base to the man, the divisiveness is bound to be wrenching. Yet Trump’s response in the face of those realities has been to excite the divisions to a fever pitch, tweeting about Congress’ lawful investigation as a “coup,” and endorsing claims that a vote to remove him from office would bring violence. At the very least, Trump has been verging on inciting civil unrest against the government, another brazen attack on the Constitution. He can’t help dealing with an impeachment inquiry except by committing further impeachable offenses. The cost of allowing such a person to remain in office is far greater than the bitterness his removal is bound to cause.
Here is another of the central dangers of permitting Trump to stay in office. He has shown he will stop at nothing to taint the 2020 election. And more profoundly, he is trying to subvert the American government. Trump and his supporters like to rail against what they call the “deep state” as an un-American force. But that “deep state” is in fact nothing more than the government of the United States of America, which he and his supporters hold in open contempt and which the Trump White House has done its utmost to decimate, replacing responsible officials with flunkies.
Although Nancy Pelosi had long suspected Trump of grave wrongdoing, it took the Ukraine scandal to persuade her to commence an impeachment inquiry. Along with others skeptical of impeachment, she could see clearly how this affair signaled that Trump’s tenure in office was an emergency that needed full investigation. Predictably, Republicans have stood by Trump, in part out of fear of his wrath and even more because they see in him, despite all his vulgarity, a champion of their principles, including a reflexive hostility to government.
It would require at least 20 Republican senators to desert Trump in order to remove him from office. Many observers consider that highly unlikely, to say the least, but the clarity of the evidence mounting against the president — and his contempt for Congress’ power — may make the outcome in the Senate far from a foregone conclusion. Trump’s Republican loyalists are not doing themselves or their party any favors, let alone the nation. They seem oblivious to the glaring fact of Trump’s career: That, perhaps outside of his own family, there is no associate he is not willing to destroy once he decides that his finances, his power, or simply his fragile ego demand it.
At one level, Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party will not end until he has devoured everyone inside it who is not a slavish extension of his own will to power. At another, Trump’s war against the U.S. government, his rage to turn every federal institution into an instrument of his own self-aggrandizement, aims to void government of any other purpose. This is precisely what the Ukraine scandal reveals. And it leaves Congress with no alternative but to impeach and remove him.
Trump’s offenses represent the greatest threat to American democracy since the Confederate secession in 1860-61. The time is fast approaching for all Americans to decide which side they are on: the United States of America or Donald J. Trump.
Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American History at Princeton University.
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