In the end, though, they have decided to go narrow and nebulous. In two impeachment articles they just announced, there is no mention of bribery or obstruction of justice. Instead, they’ve gone with one on “abuse of power” and another on “obstruction of Congress” — i.e., not obstruction of justice in the Mueller probe, which wasn’t handled by Congress.
But is that the smart play?
There are compelling arguments that it might not be. It is highly unlikely either way that Trump will ever be removed from office in the Senate, where 20 Republicans would need to cross over and vote with Democrats. But the messaging still matters. And messaging on bribery and Mueller might have been more convincing, if more complex.
The problem Democrats have with their current argument is that, in part thanks to the Trump administration withholding documents and witnesses, they haven’t gotten someone to say Trump explicitly directed a quid pro quo with regard to Ukraine. Many Democrats believe Trump merely asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival is bad enough, and they’ll apparently make that case. But they’ve also expended significant energy trying to connect the quid pro quo to Trump, and for all the overcooked GOP arguments about “hearsay,” right now it is indeed a matter of at least some inference that Trump ordered the withholding of military aid and a White House meeting for that express purpose.
Trump has routinely exploited such plausible deniability throughout his time in office, and his base has almost always found a way to excuse his actions. Democrats are attempting to impeach him without connecting him directly to the quid pro quo. Instead, they are asking people to believe that asking Ukraine for blatantly political investigations and his aides using leverage to obtain them is a “high crime and misdemeanor.”
It’s not clear that case would necessarily be easier to make if they called it bribery, but at least bribery is a concept that people understand. The argument would be that Trump bribed Ukraine with a White House meeting and military aid in exchange for those investigations.
The Democrats’ worry appears to be that it would then put them in the position of satisfying the statutory requirements of bribery, which is a valid concern. But satisfying the more nebulous “high crimes and misdemeanors” and “abuse of power” won’t be easy, either, especially given that people are welcome to define them how they like. At least with bribery, we would know exactly what Democrats are accusing Trump of, and you could explain it in one word.
The more puzzling decision, though, might be in scrapping the Mueller stuff. Democrats will apparently argue that Trump’s stonewall against the impeachment inquiry is blatant and obvious obstruction of Congress. But in Mueller’s report, they have extensive evidence all laid out for people to decide. When the Mueller report came out, I found five events for which Mueller seemed to indicate there was significant evidence to satisfy the three criteria for obstruction of justice.
Including that would not be without its own pitfalls. Mueller’s decision not to decide whether to actually accuse Trump of crimes — because of Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president — made that argument much more difficult. So, too, did Attorney General William P. Barr’s controversial decision to clear Trump of obstruction. Whatever you think of Barr’s handling of this situation and his steadfast alliance with the man who appointed him, Democrats would be impeaching Trump for something the Justice Department explicitly said wasn’t a crime.
As with bribery, there is also the matter of getting into the weeds and having to satisfy the statutory requirements for obstruction of justice. Republicans could then pull out portions of the Mueller report that cast some degree of doubt that Trump’s actions might have satisfied the three criteria.
In the end, Democrats have decided they would rather not debate specific crimes in such detail and will instead make a broader case about abuse of power and of a coverup. That’s actually pretty par for the course; while President Richard M. Nixon’s articles of impeachment laid out what can only be understood as bribery — they said he had approved “the surreptitious payment of substantial sums of money for the purpose of obtaining the silence or influencing the testimony of witnesses” — they didn’t use the actual word.
But that was also an era in which people weren’t so ensconced in their partisan camps. You have to wonder whether a more focused impeachment argument that relied upon more specific offenses and more extensive public evidence might have been more compelling.