By John Long
Unless you’ve just emerged from an underwater isolation tank, you’re aware that the House of Representatives has started the process of investigating the president for impeachable offenses. In this case, it concerns relations with Ukraine, and a particular conversation between the two presidents. The released transcript of that phone call strikes me as a pass interference call late in the fourth quarter of a close game. How you see the call depends on which team you’re backing.
For my part, let me state that I am a conservative with an affinity for constitutional, limited government, but am no particular fan of President Trump. Whether that establishes my bona fides or just antagonizes everyone who reads that sentence, I can’t say. But I try to look at controversies such as the current one as dispassionately as I can.
Much in this fast-moving story can change in the gap between my typing these words and you reading them, but as of right now I’m willing to make three predictions: 1) The House will impeach the President. 2) Barring some more damning evidence coming to light, the Senate will not vote to remove him from office. 3) Along the way, it is going to get incredibly ugly on both sides.
Some of the President’s defenders have been crying foul — where is the irrefutable evidence of law-breaking, they say? The answer to that question is simple: there need not be a breaking of the law for the House to impeach a president. While the constitution stipulates “high crimes and misdemeanors” as justification, it does not define the term, leaving it up to Congress to decide what qualifies. Presumably the House can impeach a president for wearing mismatched socks. However, I’ll also point out that the historic cases where impeachment has been done or seriously considered (Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton), clear violations of the law have indeed been involved.
Did Trump violate any law in the conversation with the Ukrainian president? Again, how you answer that question largely depends on where your loyalties lie. Given the wide constitutional latitude of the chief executive in foreign affairs, I don’t think it will be easy to make the case for illegality from that conversation alone (hence point #2 above).
Space won’t allow an exhaustive discussion of the issues, but as for point #3, it seems to me that Democrats cannot try to remove Trump from office without being ready to sacrifice the reputation of former Vice President Joe Biden. The alleged malfeasance on the part of President Trump involved asking the Ukrainian government to investigate the business dealings of Biden’s son. Did the ex-VP pressure Ukraine to remove a controversial prosecutor who was previously looking into a company in which the younger Biden was involved? It’s worth noting that much of the international community wanted that prosecutor gone, but there still seems at least potential conflict of interest on Joe Biden’s part.
So imagine you are an advisor to Trump. He very clearly (and admittedly) asked the Ukrainian president to look into l’affaire Biden. However, acknowledging that he sought information on a potential rival in the next election from a foreign power solely to gain an electoral advantage would appear, if not outright illegal, highly improper. But seeking such information as part of an ongoing investigation into malfeasance of the prior administration could be construed as a president’s duty to faithfully execute the laws of the land. (As commentator Andrew McCarthy recently pointed out, there is indeed an ongoing inquiry by the Justice Department into the origins of the Russia probe which involves, at least peripherally, the previous administration’s relations with Ukraine.)
In other words, my prediction is that the president’s defense will be “Why are you going after me for trying to expose Biden’s corruption?” Neither party will survive this ordeal unscathed. Of course, maybe that’s as it should be, since one conclusion you could easily draw from this debacle is that both national parties have an overabundant plateful of graft, influence peddling, and corruption.
To be honest, I’m concerned about a political environment in which a large segment of the population seems unable ever to see anything untoward in the President’s behavior or discourse; and wherein another large segment of the population is willing to see everything he says or does as evidence that he’s really Darth Vader. One of these two segments is inevitably going to be boiling mad before it’s all over. The rest of us will just be more cynical.
Long is a historian, writer and educator from Salem.