Impeachment Is an Opportunity for Unity
“No one has shown me that there was a law that was violated,” said Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) of President Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine. This is likely to be a common refrain of Trump supporters as House Democrats pursue impeachment: Maybe you don’t like that Trump asked Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Joe Biden, but nothing in the law prevents him from doing it.
That’s a point up for debate. Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson alerted the Justice Department that Trump’s asking for help in discrediting a political opponent could amount to a violation of campaign finance law. But the Justice Department disregarded the IG’s concern.
Others have argued that if there is a connection between the hold Trump placed on Ukrainian military aid and the phone call, then it could be a case of bribery or extortion. But some of Trump’s defenders argue that if a “quid pro quo” can’t be definitively proven, then there’s nothing to see here.
But this potential case of impeachment should not get bogged down in the weeds of legal technicalities. The foundations of our democracy are at stake.
To borrow the language used in the articles of impeachment drafted for Richard M. Nixon, the question at hand is whether Trump used “the powers of the office of President of the United States … in violation of his constitutional oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States and, to the best of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
For a president to personally try to pressure a foreign government into producing defamatory information on a political opponent is poison to the Constitution of the United States. The Constitution is the foundation of our democracy. We have no democracy without credible elections. And we have no credible elections when the president himself invites foreign interference.
Yes, there are other alleged instances of criminal and unconstitutional behavior by Donald Trump that could be incorporated into a long list of impeachment articles: tax violations, emoluments clause violations and obstruction of justice during the special counsel probe of the 2016 elections. With sufficient evidence, all such transgressions are “high crimes and misdemeanors” that are grounds for impeachment.
However, in this instance Democrats should set a higher bar for what should be included in any articles of impeachment. To put in everything egregious that Trump has ever done makes impeachment solely about Trump and his personal fitness for the office. In turn, the public reaction will divide largely based on one’s previous opinion of Trump.
Whereas the Ukraine affair, beyond Trump’s lawlessness, is part of the story about Russia’s determination to discredit democracy by discrediting America. Deep belief in democracy is what has long united us as Americans. To base impeachment as a necessity to defend our democracy from authoritarian foreign threats at least offers the possibility that the impeachment process will not worsen our polarization, and may even be an antidote to it.
We don’t know whether Russia played a direct role in the Ukraine affair. (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said without elaboration, “I think Russia has a hand in this.”) But Russia was already egging on Ukrainian officials to smear Biden before the Trump-Zelenskiy call.
During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton made her antipathy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin well known, and Putin responded with a sustained smear campaign. Joe Biden has also signaled his feelings about Putin, often sharing an anecdote about when he told Putin to his face, “I don’t think you have a soul.” And Russia has responded in similar fashion.
In April, as an expected announcement of Biden’s presidential campaign neared, Russia’s RT television network went to work. RT pushed the now-discredited claims that Biden tried to block a Ukrainian investigation into his son — claims that were fed to The Hill’s controversial reporter John Solomon by a Ukrainian official who had shortly beforehand met twice with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani. RT’s sensationalized report, which also incorporated allegations of unwanted touching, closed with, “As reels of reels of video show that Joe Biden has some pretty strange proclivities … it’s pretty clear that Joe has some pretty stranger skeletons in his closet that he would like to keep buried.”
Russia is clearly running the same disinformation operation as it did in the previous presidential election, to damage candidates that don’t serve Russia’s interest, sow general distrust in democracy and strip democratic nations of their moral authority.
The Trump-Zelenskiy transcript should not be viewed as an isolated incident, but the latest development in the attack on our democracy, only this time the attack is coming from inside the White House. What is fortunate about the transcript is that, unlike the Mueller report, every word is accepted as fact by all parties, including the president. There is no dispute over whether Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate Biden, only over the egregiousness of the request. Except among the most devout Trump loyalists, the egregiousness is overwhelming.
Four months ago in this space, I was a skeptic of the politics of impeachment, as polls showed a clear majority in opposition, even though a majority believed Trump was a criminal. And it may be that the short-term politics are still bad. But a documented attempt by the president to subvert democracy not only cannot be ignored, it must be challenged. We must try to unite the country around protecting our republic, if we are to keep it.
Of course, some Americans are bound to view Russia’s activities, and the expected impeachment process, through a partisan lens. We had divisive partisanship in 1796 and to some extent we always will. But we do not need to fuel it, fully succumb to it and resign ourselves to it. We can use this dark moment to rediscover what it is about America that binds us together and gives us purpose.