Once the show trial in the House is over, it still seems like a fairly sound bet that the Democrats will move to impeach the President. While we can’t expect much in the way of reason out of a bitterly divided partisan system, this should still offer us an opportunity to ask ourselves one question. Precisely what could President Trump or any other president actually do while in office that would merit taking such a drastic measure?
That crossed my mind when I read an op-ed in the WaPo today from Alexandra Petri, titled, Nikki Haley makes some good points about never impeaching anyone ever. Now, the actual article is nothing but pure, unadulterated liberal snark, making fun of the former UN Ambassador and positing all sorts of Republican strawman scenarios where they would only impeach a Democrat or question the outcome of an election won by a member of the donkey party. Being something of a purveyor of snark myself, I can appreciate that, even if we don’t agree on the underlying substance.
But in quoting Haley, Petri actually, if unintentionally, raises the valid question I poised above.
Leave Donald alone! He has done nothing wrong. Okay, he has done something wrong. But is it worth impeachment, really? Consider, before you answer, that “impeachment is the most serious thing you can do to a president,” as Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, so wisely reminds us.
Impeachment should not be brought for something minor like, say, a misdemeanor. Maybe for a high crime, but I am not sure even about that. Something like — I don’t know. I am drawing a blank. I honestly cannot think of something Donald Trump could do that would be impeachable. Can you think of a single thing Donald Trump would do for which the Republican majority in the Senate would willingly remove him from office? Well, exactly.
That’s enough to give you a taste of the road that column is heading down, but consider the snarky question embedded in all the attempted comedy. What actually would constitute one of the high crimes and misdemeanors we hear so much about. The Constitution is frustratingly vague on the subject. We also have little to draw on from the real world because there are so few examples to serve as a precedent. We’ve only been down this road twice before in the history of the country and both times the subject wasn’t removed from office.
Haley is obviously correct in saying that something as serious as impeachment shouldn’t be entered into lightly or solely as a tool of political gamesmanship. (Ignoring the fact that impeachment actually is a political action and not a legal one.) So let’s see what would qualify.
Jaywalking is a misdemeanor, but we’re fairly sure it meant something different in the 18th century. If Donald Trump crossed Pennsylvania outside of the crosswalks, I’m fairly sure nobody would be calling for his removal from office. (Well, except possibly Adam Schiff, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.)
If, as he has famously claimed, President trump shot someone dead in the middle of Times Square, I don’t know if he would be immune from indictment. But he could and definitely should be impeached. Then he could be arrested and put on trial after leaving office. So we can at least narrow it down to something more serious than jaywalking and less serious than murder. There must be a gray line somewhere between those two extremes.
The President is accused of engaging in a phone call with the Ukranian President and asking for “a favor” that, according to some accounts, would impact that nation’s receipt of aid money from America. Some have called this bribery. (Though curiously, it apparently wasn’t bribery when Joe Biden threatened the same country with the withholding of aid if they didn’t fire someone in their government.)
So is bribery a sufficiently high crime to impeach a president? It certainly sounds like a serious crime to me. But we’re talking about two world leaders engaging in diplomacy and negotiations on a phone call. I’m not sure that really serves as an exact match for actual bribery. Now, if you believe that he was pushing for such a transaction for the purpose of getting help in damaging a political rival, it really begins to smell bad. Of course, politicians frequently do lots of things that send us running to put clothespins on our noses, but it doesn’t always translate to being a crime.
I suppose Ms. Petri has actually brought up a very valid point and I’m not sure if I have an answer to her question. Nixon was involved in at least the coverup for a burglary, which is an actual crime, so I suppose we could have impeached him if he’d stuck around. If we caught Trump (or any president) literally embezzling taxpayer money from the treasury, sharing national secrets with our adversaries, physically assaulting someone or anything else clearly defined as a serious crime, we could impeach him.
This Ukraine business, however, seems to fall into an uncomfortable but potentially not criminal gray area. I honestly don’t know. I suppose that’s why we’ll have to have a “trial” in the Senate if the House impeaches the President. Of course, given the nature of impeachment which I mentioned above, I’m unsure how clear of an answer that will provide for the historians either when this is all said and done.