DID PRESIDENT TRUMP commit bribery? When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leveled this accusation this month, some may have heard hyperbole — or even a public-relations stunt. Messaging concerns persuaded Democrats to abandon the term “quid pro quo” for “bribery.” But it is not phony messaging. The Democrats’ charge is grounded in the Constitution’s language — and it is credible.
The Constitution specifically lists bribery as an impeachable offense, before “high crimes and misdemeanors.” If the president is guilty of bribery, there is no need to wonder what “high crimes and misdemeanors” means.
Of course, the Constitution does not define “bribery,” either. But federal law does: It is the act of giving, offering or promising anything of value — not just money or tangible items — to a public official to influence an official act. Likewise, the law bars public officials from soliciting anything of value in return for influencing the performance of an official act. In Mr. Trump’s case, two weeks of testimony have uncovered evidence that he solicited something of value from the Ukrainian government (besmirching a political opponent) in exchange for official acts (a White House meeting, the delivery of military aid).
The first piece of evidence came from Mr. Trump himself, who released the rough transcript of a July 25 phone call he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. As Mr. Zelensky asked for an Oval Office visit and to buy more antitank missiles from the United States, Mr. Trump requested “a favor”: launching investigations into supposed 2016 election interference on the part of Ukraine and into natural gas company Burisma. The former is part of an effort by Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani to discredit and distract from the fact that Russia meddled in the 2016 race to help Mr. Trump. The latter is an attempt to smear former vice president Joe Biden, whose son Hunter sat on Burisma’s board. According to the transcript, only after Mr. Zelensky promised investigations did Mr. Trump offer a White House meeting.
Testimony over the past two weeks solidified the link between Mr. Trump’s demand for political assistance and his willingness to grant an Oval Office meeting and deliver military aid.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that the president ordered him to work with Mr. Giuliani on Ukraine matters, and that Mr. Giuliani insisted that no Oval Office meeting would happen until the Ukrainians publicly pledged to conduct the investigations. Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified that Mr. Sondland made clear in a White House meeting “that he had an agreement with [acting White House chief of staff Mick] Mulvaney that in return for investigations, this meeting would get scheduled.” Mr. Sondland added that he came to believe that U.S. military aid was also contingent on announcing investigations.
U.S. diplomat David Holmes testified that he overheard a phone call between Mr. Sondland and the president, in which Mr. Trump asked the E.U. ambassador whether Mr. Zelensky was “going to do the investigation.” According to Mr. Holmes, Mr. Sondland remarked to him that Mr. Trump cared only about “big stuff that benefits the president” such as the “Biden investigation.”
What gaps remain in this already compelling story exist largely because administration officials and former officials with direct knowledge refuse to testify or turn over documents. If that knowledge or those documents tended to exonerate the president, one assumes they would be provided. That Mr. Trump abandoned his scheme when it began to emerge publicly does not clear him; if anything, it suggests he understood he was acting improperly.
The charge of bribery at first sounded shocking. What is truly shocking is how much evidence has emerged to support such a charge.
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