President Richard Nixon faced impeachment not for any crime but, under the first article of impeachment, because, “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, and in violation of his constitutional duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, has prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice.” It does not say — and it was not established — that he committed a crime. In essence, the House of Representatives concluded that impeachment and removal would be justified if Nixon used the instruments of power not for the country’s benefit but to save his own political skin (“using the powers of his high office, engaged personally and through his close subordinates and agents, in a course of conduct or plan designed to delay, impede, and obstruct the investigation” of the Watergate break-in).
As one charged with enforcement of the laws and the fair administration of justice, the president is not acting in the public interest when he uses his powers as a shield against inquiry. That seems particularly relevant as we begin to look at the case for impeachment against President Trump. Following on The Post’s blockbuster story that Trump was seeking a major deal with Russia at the time he was running for president, the New York Times reports:
A business associate of President Trump promised in 2015 to engineer a real estate deal with the aid of the president of Russia, Vladimir V. Putin, that he said would help Mr. Trump win the presidency.
The business associate, Felix Sater, wrote a series of emails to Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, in which he boasted about his ties to Mr. Putin and predicted that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would be a political boon to Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Mr. Sater wrote in an email. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”
As the Times notes, there is no evidence Sater “delivered” for Trump, but what we do get is a clear picture, in conjunction with previous disclosures, of gross conflicts of interest and abuse of power.
Now The Post reports:
A top executive from Donald Trump’s real estate company emailed Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman during the U.S. presidential campaign last year to ask for help advancing a stalled Trump Tower development project in Moscow, according to documents submitted to Congress Monday.
Michael Cohen, a Trump attorney and executive vice president for the Trump Organization, sent the email in January 2016 to Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin’s top press aide.
So Trump was taking a soft line on Russia at the time his personal attorney was asking Putin for help. Perhaps “collusion” is too kind a word for trading favors with an enemy of the United States.
Consider the following:
- Trump’s family, associates and campaign staff had numerous contacts with Russia during the campaign and post-election transition. Evidence exists that Trump’s personal attorney was seeking help from Putin as Trump was running a peculiar campaign that omitted any harsh talk about Russia.
- Trump lied in saying no such contacts occurred. Other members of his administration omitted mention of their Russian contacts on required security applications.
- Trump’s son and son-in-law met with Russian officials for the purpose of obtaining damaging information on Hillary Clinton.
- Trump openly encouraged Russian hacking of his opponent and in the closing days of the campaign made dozens and dozens of references to WikiLeaks.
- Once in office, he tried to pressure then-FBI Director James B. Comey, Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers to curtail the investigation into fired national security adviser Michael Flynn.
- After Comey refused, Trump fired him, concocted a fake reason for the firing, attempted to intimidate him before his testimony (e.g. hinting at tapes, threatening to investigate for leaking information) and publicly continued to hint at his power to remove both the attorney general and special prosecutor.
That is a pattern of behavior that goes to the core of his oath of office and his obligation to faithfully enforce the laws. He is using the powers of government for selfish, personal ends in an attempt to prevent scrutiny of his own affairs and conduct. Certainly special counsel Robert S. Mueller III will add to the portrait, filling in with illustrative detail. However, the contours of the case for impeachment are already there. As Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong of Lawfare write:
Trump has embarrassed the presidential office in innumerable ways, and members of the House and Senate are obliged to organize these incidents in their heads and get a handle on their constitutional significance. There is a wrong way and a right way to go about this task. The wrong way is to treat the launch of an impeachment inquiry as a matter of political popularity or opportunism. … The right approach is to commit to a clear-eyed and ongoing assessment of Trump’s words and actions against the obligations of the office and to trace out the effects of his misconduct on the security and welfare of the United States.
When we consider the myriad other ways in which Trump has used and misused the presidency — e.g. praising police abuses, insulting federal (“so-called”) judges, pardoning someone who defied a court order, enriching himself while in office, putting unqualified relatives in office, refusing to reveal his financial dealings or to free himself of conflicts of interest — it becomes clear that Trump is not fulfilling his oath or faithfully executing the law; he’s enriching himself, deflecting inquiry and undermining the rule of law. How could impeachment not be on the table?
Even if Republicans won’t do so, it is incumbent upon Democrats, especially those on the House Judiciary Committee, to begin considering how Trump’s conduct aligns with conduct that was the basis for impeachment (interrupted by resignation) of Nixon. They’d better start now to seriously assess what behavior should be considered an abuse of power and what evidence they would need to reach a definitive conclusion. If they win the House majority a year from November, the issue will no longer be hypothetical.