Republicans have been engaging in some interesting contortions in conjuring a defense for President Trump’s attempt to get Ukrainian officials to investigate the family of political rival Joe Biden. The most plausible approach is one Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey signed on to last month, saying that he is keeping an open mind but that even if Trump asked Ukraine for a favor, the offense may not rise to a level that demands impeachment.
That’s a debate worth having, and it will likely underlie the arguments if and when the House sends articles of impeachment to the Senate for trial.
My short answer: Yes, what Trump did is an impeachable offense. And yes, it is sufficient to require his removal from office, especially when placed within context of his other actions.
There are precious few policies that this administration has pursued that I agree with. And there are precious few Trump backers who accept that one can oppose Trump on policy grounds, yet also not reflexively back impeachment.
I’ve swung back and forth on impeachment primarily because, as Toomey and others have argued, it is such a drastic step. In fact, no president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, and this is only the fourth serious effort.
Impeachment should not be done because of policy differences, even though the Constitution sets up the process as a political one. It should only be done when the president has committed one of those ill-defined “high crimes and misdemeanors” and the resulting removal of the president is in the best interests of the nation, and of the democracy.
We are at that juncture, much as we were with Richard Nixon 45 years ago. But it’s complicated.
When Trump fired FBI Director James B. Comey and said publicly that he did so because of the investigation into possible Russian collusion with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and also sought to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (while warning him to keep the investigation away from Trump’s family), the blatant abuse of power and attempt to obstruct the investigation were grounds for impeachment on principle.
Any president who abuses the power of his office to obstruct investigations into himself or his people must be held accountable. To not do so is to invite further, and potentially worse, abuse. With someone like Trump, who puts the “emperor” in “imperial presidency” and who believes the Constitution gives him unbridled authority “to do whatever I want,” this check is of vital importance for the preservation of the balance of power.
But at the time of Comey’s dismissal, the Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, and fealty to party (and incumbent power) meant the possibility of Congress fulfilling its constitutional obligation to be a check on the executive died before it could draw a breath. That was a damaging failure.
The Democrats won control of the House in 2018, and impeachment became slightly more possible. Absent some new outrage, however, the effort would have rightly been seen as a partisan maneuver, rather than a defense of the democracy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) was right to hold in check the members of her caucus who wanted to forge ahead because the likely result would have been a stronger and more emboldened Trump.
But then the president called Kyiv, and the responsibility to check became an issue of primacy.
This is the internal wrestling Toomey and other Republicans will have to contend with. If a president pressuring a foreign government to investigate a political rival for his own political gain and then obstructing congressional efforts to conduct oversight doesn’t cross the line into impeachment territory, then where is the line?
In fact, is there a line that this president could cross that would lead Republicans to put national interest ahead of party loyalty, and vote for his removal?
This is the crisis that looms larger than Trump’s abuses. The Constitution creates the process to hold a rogue president in check, but that check disappears if Congress won’t use it.