This premise may be alluring to cynical Trump supporters who are convinced that all politicians are crooks. But it’s simply false. There is no evidence that any president in U.S. history has done what Trump is accused of doing.
Trump isn’t being impeached for letting political considerations guide his decision-making on China or Israel, gun control or immigration — though he obviously is. All presidents consider the political ramifications of every major move, and that’s perfectly legitimate. Trump is being impeached because there was no public purpose for his Ukraine policy. It was not in the interest of the United States to hold up military aid to force Ukraine to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden. It was only in the interest of the Trump campaign.
Trump defenders claim that Trump was promoting U.S. interests by demanding an investigation of corruption. But we know this is false. The word “corruption” was not mentioned in either of Trump’s two calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Biden’s name, however, was mentioned three times in the July 25 call. Foreign Service officer David Holmes testified under oath that Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a major Trump donor, told him that Trump “did not give a s--- about Ukraine” and only cared about “big stuff” that benefited him personally “like the Biden investigation.”
The president’s corrupt motive is further confirmed by three damning facts. First, the Ukraine inquiry was being pursued by his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, not by the Justice Department. Second, Trump held up military aid even after the Pentagon had already certified that Ukraine was fighting corruption, And, third, as Sondland testified, Trump made clear that he only wanted an investigation of Biden announced — he didn’t care whether it was actually completed.
What Trump was doing wasn’t legal; the Government Accountability Office ruled that the president violated the Impoundment Control Act, and a strong case can be made that he also violated other laws such as the bribery statute and the law against soliciting foreign help in an election.
If there is a historical precedent for this egregious misconduct, I’m not aware of it — and Trump defenders haven’t found one either. President Richard M. Nixon was guilty of abusing his authority, but he didn’t subordinate foreign policy to his personal political interests as Trump has. (He did secretly urge South Vietnam not to join peace talks in 1968 to aid his campaign, but he wasn’t president then.) Other presidents — from Andrew Jackson with the Trail of Tears during the 1830s, to Franklin D. Roosevelt with the internment of U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent during World War II — have done far worse things. As egregious as those policies were, however, they weren’t motivated by the desire for private gain.
Republican political consultant Karl Rove, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, strains to draw a parallel with presidential candidate Hillary Clinton hiring Christopher Steele “to reach out to Russian counterparts to solicit dirt on Donald Trump” and with President Barack Obama telling then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in March 2012 that he would have “more flexibility” on missile defense after the election.
Talk about false equivalency.
Steele was not a Russian agent — he was a former British intelligence officer using Russian contacts to investigate the Kremlin’s support for the Trump campaign (which was real). There is no evidence Clinton was even aware that Steele had been hired by an opposition research firm employed by her campaign. And she was neither president nor even secretary of state at the time; her actions, therefore, had no impact on U.S. foreign policy. So there is no comparison with Trump.
As for Obama, he did not tell Medvedev that he would show more flexibility on missile defense if the Russians provided dirt on his 2012 opponent, Mitt Romney. He was merely saying it would be easier to compromise when there wasn’t an election going on. This is an example of how presidents normally take politics into account when making policy — and it shows how far Trump’s actions diverge from the norm.
While there is no real historical precedent for Trump’s abuse of his commander-in-chief authority, if he gets away with it, expect more such misconduct in the future. Trump defenders may eventually be proved correct: While his behavior is outrageously abnormal today, in a few decades’ time it may come to be seen as the norm. And then, to quote Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), “we are lost.”