House Democrats have been remarkably cautious in considering whether to impeach Donald Trump. Even after the Mueller Report, which did not exonerate the president from obstruction of justice in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, they did not call for his impeachment. However, the concerns raised in the current impeachment inquiry directly implicate the president. The most alarming evidence is the July 25, 2019 transcript of the telephone conversation between President Trump and the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. After preliminary words of congratulations for the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, President Trump asked President Zelensky for a “favor.” He mentioned two specific things he would like to have investigated. First, the president mentioned “CrowdStrike,” the discredited conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians, not the Russians, tried to influence the 2016 election. He then turned to the Bidens and the former Ukrainian prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, who was fired in March 2016. President Trump expressed regret that the former prosecutor had been “shut down” and suggested (based on another debunked conspiracy theory) that Vice President Biden wanted him fired to prevent an investigation of the company (Burisma) that his son, Hunter Biden, worked for.
We now know that President Trump was leveraging an official state visit with President Zelensky during their phone conversation. After President Zelenksy was elected in April, President Trump called the newly-elected president to congratulate him and mentioned that he would like him to visit the U.S. Through various back-channels, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, connected the official state visit with Zelensky’s public announcement of the investigations mentioned during the July 25 phone call. On July 10, two weeks before the conversation between the two heads of state, Gordon Sondland, the Ambassador to the European Union, raised the quid pro quo arrangement in a meeting in Washington D.C. with both Ukrainian and U.S. officials present. Alexander Vindman, National Security Council Director of European Affairs, and Fiona Hill, former White House Russia adviser, expressed concerns that such requests were “inappropriate.” John Bolton, the former National Security Adviser, abruptly ended the meeting and later described the arrangement as a “drug deal,” according to Hill’s testimony. At the end of the July 25th phone call, President Zelensky acknowledged the link between the official state visit to the United States and the requested investigations.
Another source of leverage that President Trump attempted to use was money. Congress had previously committed $392 million dollars to Ukraine for military support to protect against Russian aggression. On July 18, President Trump unilaterally withheld that money. The money to Ukraine was eventually released in September, but not before top State Department officials raised questions about why it was being withheld and the House became aware of a whistleblower complaint filed back in August. Bill Taylor, the top diplomat to Ukraine, said it was “crazy” for President Trump to withhold money to a foreign country to help with his own political campaign.
Historically speaking, the impeachment case against Donald Trump satisfies the constitutional standard of “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” better than any previous one, except perhaps Richard Nixon’s. What President Trump engaged in during the July 25 conversation with President Zelensky was nothing short of bribery. Andrew Johnson did unpopular political acts during his presidency, but he did nothing illegal. In fact, his removal of Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, was proven to be within his constitutional authority historically. Bill Clinton exercised incredibly poor judgment in having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, but it did not warrant removal from office. The clearest parallel to the current investigation is Richard Nixon’s. Nixon ordered the burglary of the Watergate building to learn what the Democrats were planning in the 1972 election and then orchestrated a coverup. When the Supreme Court ruled that the Oval Office audiotapes had to be released, Nixon had no choice but to resign. Similarly, Donald Trump wanted information against a political rival that would give him an advantage in his reelection bid for 2020. But Trump’s actions were arguably worse than Richard Nixon’s because he wanted to involve a foreign government in U.S. elections! No president should be able to call on a foreign leader to ask for a personal favor in a domestic election. If your members of Congress do not review the evidence of this investigation with the degree of seriousness it deserves, then you should vote them out of office.
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James B. Staab is a Professor of Political Science and Constitutional Law at the University of Central Missouri. He has authored or co-authored articles or book chapters on various Supreme Court justices, including Levi Woodbury, Benjamin Cardozo, and Antonin Scalia. In 2006, he published a book on Justice Scalia titled The Political Thought of Justice Antonin Scalia: A Hamiltonian on the Supreme Court (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield). He is currently working on a book project tentatively titled, “The Limits of Constraint: The Originalist Jurisprudence of Hugo Black, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas.”
The Tea Party is Anti-Federalist (October 16, 2013)