The Trump lawyers’ challenge to the Senate began with their answer to the very first question from senators. Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mitt Romney (Utah) asked: What if the president had a mixed motive — if he thought he was acting both “in pursuit of a personal political advantage” and in “promotion of national interests”? Deputy White House Counsel Patrick Philbin responded without caveat. That “cannot possibly be the basis for an impeachable offense,” he said.
Leave it to Alan Dershowitz to drive the point home with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. If “a president does something which he believes will get himself elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” Dershowitz contended.
For a president psychologically incapable of distinguishing between his own personal interests and the nation’s, that amounts to the ultimate get-out-of-impeachment-free card. Trump already believes that “I have an Article II” — Article II of the Constitution — “where I have the right to do whatever I want as president.” This self-described very stable genius, he of “I alone can fix it,” is convinced that his reelection, achieved by whatever means necessary, serves the interests of the country. In short, anything goes.
But the argument is a lie. It’s another example of how Trump corrupts all around him. Following the lead of the political aides and allies who came before them, during the past two weeks it has been the lawyers who have debased themselves. Defying their own obligations of candor to the tribunals before which they appear, they’ve lied to and misled the court of impeachment about the House proceedings and underlying facts, peddled conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation, and of course about Ukraine and the Bidens.
Their legal position is likewise false. It’s just not true that good motives, when mixed with bad ones, compel acquittal under the law. If a politician takes a bribe to do what he thinks would have been best for the public anyway, he still goes to jail. If he’s president, under a Constitution that refers to impeachment specifically for “bribery,” as well other “high crimes and misdemeanors,” he should still be removed.
It’s also not true that “abuse of power” is not impeachable, or that a statutory crime is necessary for impeachment. And it’s not true, as Dershowitz argued Wednesday, that the Framers’ rejection of “maladministration” as a basis for impeachment means that abuse of power isn’t impeachable. The Framers rejected the word “maladministration” because it covered mistakes and incompetence, not because it also could mean abuse of power. In fact, they swapped “high crimes and misdemeanors” into the final document precisely because it does cover such abuse.
It couldn’t be any other way, if you think about it for even a moment. Trump’s lawyers are right that if a president does what he honestly thinks is simultaneously in his personal electoral and the national interests, that’s not impeachable, in the following sense: If a president cuts taxes because he thinks it will get him reelected and it will create jobs, that’s fine. That’s ordinary electoral politics.
But if he cuts taxes because he has an agreement with a major backer that, in exchange for tax cuts, the backer will fund a huge super PAC to support his reelection, that’s impeachable — because that’s a corrupt quid pro quo for his personal benefit. So, too, if a president conditions another official act — releasing security assistance to a foreign country — on a requirement that the foreign country smear the president’s political opponent. That’s not politics; that’s corruption.
And corruption, for all the Trump lawyers’ attempt to muddy the waters with tortured interpretations of the Constitution, is what this impeachment is all about. Trump acted with corrupt intent to damage a political opponent. Testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton seems certain to underscore that point.
Which is precisely why Republican senators seem so desperate not to hear it and so willing to entertain a false reading of the Constitution that would effectively render the impeachment clause a nullity. Should they do that, they will have sacrificed their own oaths to protect their own electoral prospects, and the country and the Constitution will have been saddled with a terrible precedent. The Senate will have told Trump that, indeed, he can do whatever he wants.