Impeachment, Alexander Hamilton wrote 230 years ago, is an inherently political decision. When the House of Representatives considers impeaching a president, it does not ask whether he’s guilty of a crime. Rather, it asks whether his “abuse or violation” of the public trust is so egregious that he must be removed from office in order to protect the integrity of the people’s government.
On Wednesday, for just the fourth time in American history, the House is scheduled to ask that question about an American president, as it opens public impeachment hearings against President Trump. As painful as this moment is, it has become necessary. The president stands accused of abusing the power of the presidency in especially flagrant fashion, by using taxpayer money designated for national security for his own political purposes. He shows no remorse, and indeed defends his actions as completely appropriate, more or less promising that he’d repeat his corrupt acts if Congress does not act.
The question for Congress, and for the nation watching on television, is whether Trump’s actions are tolerable for this — or any — president. Whatever Congress decides will set precedents for future generations and chart the ethical boundaries for future presidents. Partisan passions are running high, but lawmakers must take a step back and, like the Founders, consider what sort of government they want to leave their children.
In the initial closed-door phase of the inquiry, a parade of witnesses told a remarkably consistent story. This summer, the president held up $400 million in congressionally appropriated military aid to the Eastern European nation of Ukraine, a country that has been enmeshed in a war with Russia since 2014. His action was mysterious, because both political parties have backed Ukraine and considered the country’s defense vital to American national security.
At roughly the same time, Trump and his representatives — particularly his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani — were pressing the Ukrainian government to announce a corruption investigation into Joe Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, and his son Hunter, who once served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company. There is no evidence of any actual corruption to investigate, but the existence of a probe in a foreign country would have been a weapon for Trump to use on the campaign trail.
According to multiple witnesses, the two events were linked. Ukraine desperately needed the money appropriated by Congress, but witnesses indicate that Ukrainian officials were told they needed to announce investigations in order for the president to cut the check. That’s extortion. And for Trump to ask for a political favor from a foreign leader in exchange for an official action — that’s soliciting a bribe. The Constitution specifically cites bribery as an impeachable offense.
The treatment of a country halfway around the world might not bother Americans. But the power of the president is so great that corruption in the office is especially dangerous. Do Americans want to live in a country where the president can divert public resources to his own ends? Is it okay for this president, or any president, to ask a foreign country to meddle in an American election, as Trump did by asking Ukraine to launch and publicize politically motivated investigations? American soft power in the world is based on the impression that this country acts on principles of democracy and freedom. Is Congress prepared to end that tradition by affirming the choice of a president to use foreign policy for his own interests
Impeachment happens so rarely in American history — just two presidents have been impeached, and none removed — that it is widely misunderstood. Impeachment is not a criminal process with criminal penalties; if Trump is impeached, removed from office, and barred from running again, there are no further consequences for him (although of course prosecutors could charge him with crimes, as they can charge any other US citizen). The purpose of impeachment is not punitive: It’s a defensive mechanism to protect the American people from corrupt or disloyal officials. When a president ceases working for Americans — and starts working either for himself or for a foreign country — then impeachment is warranted.
Over the next few weeks, the only question that matters is whether Trump’s actions meet the constitutional threshold for impeachment. Yet with the evidence already against the president, Trump and his allies have resorted to a strategy of attacking the impeachment process itself, distorting the facts, smearing the witnesses, and changing the subject. They seem to be hoping that a fog of myths, half-truths, mistruths, and misdirections will muddy the waters and confuse the public enough for Trump to survive.
Some of the president’s supporters have tried a softer approach, arguing that while Trump’s actions were inappropriate, they are not impeachable. The president himself, though, has rejected that defense. His insistence that he did nothing wrong in his interactions with Ukraine has, if anything, made the lines clearer and stakes higher in the impeachment inquiry. Trump is not asking for forgiveness; he’s demanding approval. If Congress gives it to him— normalizing what had always been viewed as an obvious abuse of presidential power — there’s no going back.