The contrast that Henninger drew, and that Mulvaney faintly echoes, is striking. Henninger seems to imply that the status of a course of action as “hardball” politics suffices to clear it of being an impeachable offense.
But, of course, the designation provides no such vindication. The category of “hardball politics” is very broad. A basic definition is pursuit of political victory through methods that violate norms. Political analysts typically attribute the earliest account of the phenomenon to the Italian political philosopher Niccoló Machiavelli, after whom the devil himself may have been nicknamed “Old Nick.”
In his handbook for rulers, “The Prince," Machiavelli wrote that “it is necessary for a prince . . . to learn how not to be good, and to use this knowledge and not use it, according to the necessity of the case.” While it is useful for a prince to appear to be merciful, faithful, humane, honest and religious, the successful prince, Machiavelli argued, must often also act against all those values.
But here’s the tricky thing about hardball politics. Social norms come in a variety of forms — cultural values, parliamentary rules of procedure and laws, for instance — and hardball politics can include actions that violate norms of any or all of these kinds. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) plays hardball politics by violating norms of democratic practice — such as refusing to move forward on President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. President Richard M. Nixon surely thought he was playing hardball politics when his underlings sought to steal the papers of his Democratic opponents. Perhaps the most prominent recent example of hardball politics was the killing of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by the operatives of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi state. Khashoggi’s murder in October 2018 was directed toward tamping down dissent and controlling factionalism. The prince and Saudi Arabia appear to have gotten away with it, which makes it successful hardball politics, as well as murder.
Trump’s adventurism, too, might well count as hardball politics — but it can also count as an impeachable offense. The categories are not mutually exclusive.
What makes an impeachable offense? Violations of the law or Constitution, including of the president’s constitutional oath to exercise the powers of the office faithfully, when such violations rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The requirement that the president exercise the powers of the office faithfully includes a norm that the president use the powers of the office in the national interest, not to advance his personal interest. Doing the latter is abuse of power.
The politics necessarily involved in foreign policy should consist of securing success for a policy agenda, even if that agenda has a partisan or ideological slant, not in sourcing or manufacturing dirt on a political opponent.
Giuliani’s strange role in this whole affair underscores where and how things have gone wrong. Presidents appoint special envoys all the time at their own discretion — and without Senate approval — to do necessary diplomatic work to drive a policy agenda forward. But historically, they generally give those people a formal title of some kind to indicate that they are pursuing the interests of the president of the United States, on behalf of the United States. That Giuliani was dispatched to Ukraine and given authority over the Ukrainian policy of the United States, in no other capacity but that of Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, itself reveals that the agenda being pursued was driven by the president’s personal interests. Had the president been pursuing a genuine policy agenda in the national interest, he could have made Giuliani a special envoy with the stroke of a pen.
What’s wrong with the president’s use of Giuliani is not that he used Giuliani for diplomacy, but the specific agenda Trump gave him. While precedent has emerged that enables the president to use whomever he pleases to conduct foreign policy, that precedent does not also authorize the president to reduce foreign policy to personal interest, in violation of his oath of office. The specific course of conduct undertaken is what makes the president’s version of hardball politics impeachable.