Before the price goes sky-high, I’d strongly suggest that interested observers, journalists, lawmakers and Hill staff go pick up a copy of the seminal “Impeachment: A Handbook,” by Charles L. Black Jr. Written while President Richard Nixon was still in office, it remains the seminal work on impeachment — and is succinct and highly readable, to boot.
The immediate issue at hand seems to be whether noncriminal conduct, whatever the motive, that repeatedly puts the country’s national security at risk and/or advances a foreign power’s interest above ours (collectively, we’ll refer to it as President Trump’s Russia First policy) would be grounds for impeachment.
To review, Trump has:
- Encouraged Russia to hack into Democrats’ emails;
- Delayed 18 days (if in fact his White House counsel kept him abreast) after a warning from then-acting attorney general Sally Yates before firing national security adviser Michael Flynn (whom Yates explained was compromised to the Russians);
- Provided code-word classified intelligence to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in the Oval Office;
- Continued to question whether Russia interfered with the U.S. election, despite near certitude among all the intelligence agencies and members of both parties (not to mention allies’ intelligence services);
- Condoned (by, among other things, sending out his top advisers to spin for him) Jared Kushner’s attempt to set up a secret channel to Russia before Trump was president, using Russian facilities so as to cut out our own intelligence services;
- Fired the FBI director who was investigating potential Russian collusion; and
- Reportedly contemplated returning the compounds closed by the Obama administration in response to Russia meddling in our election.
The move, even as attention focuses on the peculiar affection for our nation’s principal international adversary, defies reasonable explanation. One is surely entitled to ask, “Whose side is he on?” Clint Watts, former FBI special agent and expert in Russian counterintelligence, tells me, “It’s exactly what Russia wants, and seems to coincide with Russian threats via Sputnik news” to respond in kind to “expropriation” of Russian property. He continues, “What is gained by giving these properties back? Why would we undo sanctions and these property closures after they meddles in our election?” His answer: “It appears that Russia has leverage on us, or that Trump wants to please them. As you said, would an agent appear to do anything different?”
And that brings us back to our impeachment inquiry. None of the conduct described above is per se illegal, nor are we talking about making out a case for espionage or treason or bribery. In essence the question is: Does malfeasance of this magnitude that subsumes our national security interests to a foreign foes’s constitute one of the “high crimes and misdemeanors” denoted in the Constitution?
In “Impeachment: A Handbook,” Black explains that delegates to the Constitutional Convention specifically excluded “maladministration” from the grounds for impeachment. In other words, being a bad or inept president is not enough for impeachment. But what we are talking about is refusal to carry out the duties of the commander in chief, in essence blatant disregard of his oath because he favors a foreign government’s interests over our own.
Suppose a president were to move to Saudi Arabia. . . and were to propose to conduct the office of the presidency by mail and wireless. [This was 1974, remember.] This would not be a crime, provided the passport was in order. Is it possible that such gross and wanton neglect of duty could not be grounds for impeachment and removal? Suppose a president were to announce that he could under no circumstances appoint any Roman Catholic to office and were to rigorously stick to this plan. … Suppose a president were to announce and follow a policy of granting full pardons, in advance of indictment or trial, to all federal agents or police who killed anybody in the line of duty … whatever the circumstances and however unnecessary the killing. … I would conclude that the limitation of impeachable offenses to those offenses made generally criminal by statute is unwarranted — even absurd.
Black summarizes that a high crime or misdemeanor “in the constitutional sense, ought to be held to be those offenses which are rather obviously wrong, whether or not ‘criminal’ and which so seriously threaten the order of political society as to make pestilent and dangerous the continuance in power of their perpetrator.”
Frankly, reckless or intentional actions reflecting favoritism toward a foreign power to the detriment of American national security must surely fit that definition.
We know that Congress’s decision to impeach and ultimately to remove (by the House and Senate, respectively) is not reviewable by any court. In that sense, an impeachable offense is whatever Congress decides it is. But to the extent lawmakers in good conscience want to know if conduct such as that described above would be a proper basis for impeachment, the answer is yes. As in abandoning his job to decamp for a foreign land, a president who no longer devotes himself to defending the Constitution from foreign enemies can and should be impeached.
It is therefore up to Congress to decide whether Trump has evidenced a pattern of behavior that can be identified as favoring Russian interests over our own. If it determines this is what is/has been occurring, impeachment would be an altogether appropriate response.