Old and busted: Quid pro quo! New impeachment hotness: Bribery! House Intelligence chair Adam Schiff has hinted at the nomenclature change for a few weeks, and he rolled it out on Impeachapalooza Eve in this interview with NPR. At the same time, Schiff also tried to redefine it, a clear sign that he may not have a case with either:
The man leading the impeachment inquiry says he already sees several potential impeachable offenses committed by President Trump.
— Morning Edition (@MorningEdition) November 13, 2019
“Bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader,” Schiff said. “It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you’re offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation’s interest.”
To prove bribery, Schiff said, you have to show that the president was “soliciting something of value,” which Schiff thinks multiple witnesses before his committee have testified to in private.
Schiff has a bigger problem with this argument than in pursuing a quid pro quo. The term “quid pro quo” has enough murkiness around it to argue for it more broadly, as it doesn’t necessarily require a single overt act or demand. Bribery requires an overt act or demand by the person himself, offering something of value for an illicit purpose. Thus far, none of the witnesses in the depositions released by the impeachment inquiry have even established direct link between any official or unofficial quid pro quo policy and Trump, let alone an overt act of bribery. The Trump call with Volodymyr Zelensky never posits a trade of aid at all, let alone tie aid to any specific action.
By his new definition, Schiff should have demanded Barack Obama’s impeachment for this little episode:
Here we have a president soliciting easy treatment for himself so he can win an election, in exchange for a tacit pledge to cut favorable deals afterward, which is what is clearly meant by “after my election I have more flexibility.” And in this case, we actually have the president himself, on microphone and camera, offering the “bribe.” Something of value at the expense of US national security traded for personal political benefit — right?
Or for that matter, wouldn’t that definition apply to, oh, every member of Congress who meets with big campaign contributors? How many of them pledge to vote certain ways in order to score big PAC funding? Do any of them vote to cut defense spending for those purposes? Schiff’s on the verge of criminalizing politics in general by redefining “bribery” into everyday transactional politics based on perspective, rather than overt acts that can be definitively proven.
The idea here is to make the impeachment inquiry “sexier” to the American public, an issue I’ll address in a later post. However, what Schiff is actually doing here is highlighting the fact that there is no statutory violation at the heart of this impeachment probe at all, unlike the impeachments of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. It’s a fight over politics, not lawbreaking, and any attempt to create a crime by redefining it will get shredded not just by the Republicans on the inquiry committee but also by Senate Republicans if this advances to a trial.
This is a PR play made out of desperation. Schiff’s pet project still hasn’t generated any sort of bipartisan support, and he’s running out of time to succeed. He’s have been better advised to stick to the quid pro quo, except that none of their witnesses can tie Trump to that either.