Presidential Abuse of Power or Partisan Swamp Gas?

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Presidential Abuse of Power or Partisan Swamp Gas?
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Presidential Abuse of Power or Partisan Swamp Gas?
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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The impeachment furor is a purely political fight, not a legal one. The essential question, which the Democrats have raised continuously since Donald Trump was elected, is whether he is fit for office. Trump’s response has essentially been: “I was duly elected. I’ve done nothing wrong. You are using congressional committees, deep-state bureaucrats, a partisan special prosecutor, Democratic state attorneys general, nationwide injunctions from left-wing judges, and friendly media to prevent me from governing.”

Trump and his allies see the same basic strategy in play over the Ukrainian phone call. Where the Democrats see presidential abuse of power for personal and political gain, Trump and his supporters see zealots overreaching, trying to nullify a popular election.

This political fight boils down to four issues.

No. 1: Did President Trump abuse the U.S. Constitution so badly that he should be thrown out of office for asking “a favor” from his Ukrainian counterpart?

Career officials at the Department of Justice scrutinized the phone call transcript and determined that Trump violated no laws. Did he seek “something of value” from a foreign source, in violation of campaign laws? That is the “quid pro quo” issue, and
DoJ rejected it.

Trump’s language may not have been illegal, but it was worse than ill-advised. It was wrong. Trump should never have asked “for a favor,” even if that involved Ukraine looking into prior corruption, a coverup of illegal activity there, financial leverage applied by the Obama administration, and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election. If the president wanted Ukraine to investigate those matters, he should simply have said that he hoped they would do so in a fair, nonpartisan way. If they needed cooperation from Washington, he should have explained that the departments of justice or state will be glad to assist.

The problem here is that the U.S. has an interest in stopping corruption abroad, especially when U.S. tax dollars are involved, but the issue becomes partisan when the alleged corruption involves the family member of a political opponent. That’s exactly the issue in Ukraine.

Trump should never have inserted his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, into these official matters. That’s true even if the State Department or others asked Giuliani to help. Official business should be insulated from personal or partisan issues. Hillary Clinton shouldn’t combine them. Joe Biden shouldn’t combine them. And Donald Trump shouldn’t combine them, either.

Is the request to Ukraine enough, by itself, to overturn an election when the voters themselves can decide soon enough whether Trump should continue in office? In my opinion, no.

No. 2: The Biden family has long monetized the former vice president’s position. That swamp gas will sink his candidacy, probably before the nomination but, if not, then in the general election.

In the primaries, this controversy clearly helps Biden’s opponents, especially his leading rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Whatever the House decides about impeachment, its investigation will make Trump’s alleged abuse of office a major campaign issue. How can Biden possibly press that issue? His problem is similar to Mitt Romney’s in attacking Obamacare. The governor’s own health care program in Massachusetts was a doppelgänger.

No. 3: Unless the House committees uncover significantly more evidence against Trump, trying to impeach him over the Ukraine phone call will harm the Democrats.

By turning up the intensity without turning up more dirt, they will simply alienate independent, centrist voters who want Congress to do the country’s business. The Democrats must convince them that impeachment is the country’s business — indeed, it is such pressing business that Congress cannot do anything else, including gun control or trade with Canada and Mexico. Good luck with that.

Right now, Democrats are attacking Trump for “abuse of office.” This claim is political, not legal. Although the House can define “high crimes and misdemeanors” broadly, the Democrats’ case would be far stronger if they can show specific laws were broken. So far, they cannot do that. That leaves them with a political dispute where they have strong support from their base but not from the wider public.

It won’t help them to toss in “obstruction of justice” charges, based on volume 2 of the Mueller report. The public listened to Robert Mueller’s testimony, listened to Adam Schiff’s years of false claims that he had clear-cut evidence against Trump, and concluded that these charges didn’t amount to much. The Democrats are convinced the public is wrong, but “hey, you’re wrong” is not the best election slogan.

No. 4: The House Democrats are wagering everything on this. Unless they come up with a lot more, they are betting the ranch on a pair of deuces.

Nancy Pelosi has done her best to protect moderate Democrats from a floor vote to authorize an impeachment inquiry. That’s a major achievement in a party where the left wing is surging. But that strategy can’t survive as more and more Democratic members declare for impeachment.

Even without floor vote, moderate members are increasingly vulnerable. In 2018, they won on substantive issues like health care and pledges to work with colleagues across the aisle. Those promises now look hollow. They cannot say “I delivered” to 2020 voters.

Impeachment is the most serious act Congress can undertake, aside from declaring war. When Republicans ill-advisedly impeached Bill Clinton, they learned that the public does not want to overturn an election unless they truly see “high crimes.” In Richard Nixon’s case, they saw them. In Clinton’s case, they didn’t. He may have lied under oath about sexual matters (a federal crime), but they said that was simply not enough.

Today’s Democrats are betting everything on a much vaguer charge. They are doing it without bipartisan support as they approach an election when voters can decide for themselves. It’s a dangerous wager — for their party and for the country.

Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at charles.lipson@gmail.com.



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