The question at stake in the Senate trial is plain: Is the use of public funds as leverage to gain private, political benefits from a foreign government an impeachable abuse of presidential power? The matter is so simple that Trump’s Republican defenders are reduced to babbling incoherence in trying to avoid it. When asked whether Trump’s solicitation of foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election was proper, Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) responded, “Well, those are just statements, political. They make them all the time. . . . People do things. Things happen.”
“Things happen.” This is a revealingly ludicrous response to a charge of public corruption. No, trying to cheat in a presidential election is not like losing your keys or getting caught in the rain without your umbrella. Those are the kinds of “things” that just happen. The evidence that Trump cut off military aid to a friendly government in the middle of an armed conflict to compel that government to announce the investigation of a political rival is overwhelming. Several administration officials found this action so unethical, dangerous and disturbing that they expressed their alarm to relevant authorities. Those who dismiss such accusations as a political vendetta or a coup attempt are engaged in willful deception.
And because Trump denies any wrongdoing — pronouncing his own actions “perfect” — senators who vote for his vindication are effectively blessing such abuses in the future. Their action would set an expectation of corruption at the highest levels of our government.
All this would be particularly damaging to our constitutional order because Trump’s abuse of power is, for many supporters, the essence of his political appeal. Incidents such as the Ukraine shakedown are not excesses or outliers. They represent an approach to governing that resembles a crime syndicate. Anyone Trump can hire or fire is assumed to be an operative, sworn to personal loyalty. Fixers and factotums are employed to impose the leader’s will and to weed out resistance. Discipline is assured through the fear of swift and cruel reprisal. Any action that “owns the Democrats” or defeats the “deep state” is justified because Trump’s opponents are disloyal to the United States and seek its ruin.
This is a world where ethical rules count for nothing. A world where character is for chumps. A world where institutional constraints are temporary obstacles and the pursuit of power takes priority over every norm or principle.
Do elected Republicans really want to live in such a world? At one point they generally claimed, above all, to be constitutionalists. But in our constitutional order, power is legitimate because it is checked. In our system of government, patriotism means institutionalism.
Most abuses of power are eventually attacks on the separation of powers. And that is exactly what the Senate now faces.
Trump challenged Congress by withholding congressionally appropriated military assistance. Though there are limited circumstances in which spending can be legally delayed, the Trump administration did not notify Congress that it was making an exception in this case. Budget officials within the administration warned that this action violated the law, which was also the conclusion of a recent Government Accountability Office report.
Trump has challenged Congress by urging officials to defy lawful subpoenas and by blocking the production of documents — essentially declaring the White House immune from oversight.
And Trump has challenged Congress by directly disputing the legitimacy of the impeachment process. White House lawyers have declared impeachment to be “a brazen and unlawful attempt to overturn the results of the 2016 election.” But America’s Founders specially included an impeachment provision in the Constitution to overturn the result of an election when the president engages in misconduct and betrays the public trust. Trump is essentially claiming that he should be accountable only to voters — an argument that may sound reasonable but has nothing to do with our system of government.
These challenges clarify the stakes of impeachment. Will Republican senators allow partisanship to override their institutional obligations? Probably. Would this make them complicit, not only in an unethical presidential act, but also in the further decay of the constitutional order? Definitely.