The growing accumulation of evidence that President Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the son of his possible 2020 election opponent has placed Democrats—and more broadly, democrats—in a quandary. The allegations involve deeply serious presidential wrongdoing in multiple respects. First, it appears that the President sought valuable assistance from the government of a foreign country for his 2020 presidential reelection campaign. Second, it has been reported—and confirmed by compelling testimony—that he withheld military assistance from Ukraine as a way of extorting this concession from a vulnerable new Ukrainian government. And third, it is the case—though this point has not been adequately stressed in the controversy to date—that Trump’s actions risked doing grave damage to U.S. national security interests, by leaving perhaps the most vital democratic bulwark against Russian authoritarian expansionism in the region—Ukraine—unable to defend itself.
The reported testimony of the distinguished career officials who have paraded before the House Intelligence Committee in the past few weeks has been so specific, so credible, so consistent, and so damning—with the public version on live television soon to commence—that Republicans have now been forced to retreat from “no quid pro quo” to “no harm no foul.” In other words, it was just this unconventional—well, okay, slightly roguish—President doing his odd shtick again. It doesn’t rise to the level of an impeachable offence, Republican members of Congress are now insisting. There is no demonstration that he had “corrupt intent.”
But what other intent could Trump have had in asking, on his “perfect” July 25 phone call, Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favor.” The request came after Trump had stressed, “We do a lot for Ukraine. Much more than the European countries are doing.” “The United States has been very very good to Ukraine,” the President goes on. There is clearly a tone of “you want it to continue, don’t you?” Zelensky leaves no doubt that he does. He offers Ukraine’s deep appreciation and expresses its urgent need for U.S. Javelin anti-tank missiles to defend against Russian encroachment on Ukrainian territory. And then the famous Trump line, “I need you to do us a favor, though”: work with “Rudy and Attorney General Barr” to investigate Biden’s son.
If the President did not have corrupt intent—to turn the instruments of U.S. foreign policy to personal political advantage, even at risk to the U.S. national security interest—if it was such a “perfect call,” then why did National Security Council lawyers take the very unconventional step of moving the transcript of the call (which contained no classified information) to a highly classified computer system? If there was no corrupt intent, if this was merely a friendly suggestion rather than an act of national extortion, then why did the White House hold up the nearly $400 million military aid package for Ukraine for nearly two months—a hold that began a week before the “perfect call” and that was not lifted until September 11 under growing congressional pressure? Throughout the summer, the Pentagon had been warning the White House that if its portion of the aid package wasn’t released soon, it wouldn’t be able to deliver the military assistance before the end of the fiscal year on September 30.
In the end, it has always been up to the Congress to determine whether a presidential act rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But there is broad agreement that such impeachable behavior is not strictly limited to criminal offenses. A President putting the national security of the United States at risk in order to pressure a foreign government to aid his reelection campaign seems a far more serious offense than lying under oath about a sexual affair.
It might be possible to view this differently if Trump’s behavior was an aberration. But it is his regular mode of operation. As candidate, Trump busted norm after norm of civility, tolerance, and unconditional commitment to the democratic electoral process, inviting violence from his campaign supporters and threatening to reject the results of the election if he lost. As President, he has warmly embraced by an array of ruthless dictators—from Vladimir Putin to Kim Jong-un—while demeaning and undermining our most vital democratic allies and alliances, and our democratic values. From the day he took office, Trump has pursued an authoritarian style of governance, one in which truth is denied and distorted on a daily basis and the awesome powers of Executive Branch leadership are deployed to serve the personal political ends (re-election), financial interests (revenue to his hotel properties), and sheer vanity of the President. Independent media are dismissed as fake news and critics as disloyal to the country. Beginning with his welcoming of and indeed public appeal for Russian assistance in his 2016 election campaign, through to his violations of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution (which forbids Federal officials from accepting benefits from foreign states without congressional approval), and on to his repeated efforts to obstruct justice in the investigation of Russia’s election interference, Trump has been a serial violator of his presidential oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” With the release of the Mueller Report in April 2019 (with its abundant evidence of presidential obstruction), the substantive and legal case for impeachment became, in my view, compelling. But it was a complex case to make to the public, it had dribbled on for far too long, it was preempted by Attorney General William Barr’s hasty mischaracterization of the conclusions, and then it was further undermined by Mueller’s own failure to clearly enunciate the grounds for impeachment. With 31 of the Democrats’ 235 House seats in districts carried by Trump in 2018, Speaker Nancy Pelosi thus felt compelled to slow-walk the process.
Some House Democrats and strategists also intuited what political science scholars were finding from their comparative research. An all-out battle over the President’s alleged violations of the Constitution and the law risked playing into his polarizing narrative of an effete Washington elite that was mired in political stalemate and detached from the “real majority” of hardworking people, whose needs for relief and redemption were too urgent to be held hostage to arcane procedural norms. From this perspective, the focus needed to be on addressing substantive issues like economic security and health care, where Democrats could appeal to and peel away a portion of Trump’s support base. A head-on collision over impeachment would only force Trump supporters into their partisan trenches. Yale political scientist Milan Svolik has confirmed this tendency in his experimental research across several countries: “In sharply polarized electorates, even voters who value democracy will be willing to sacrifice fair democratic competition for the sake of electing politicians who champion their interests.” And the degree of polarization matters; the bigger the partisan and policy gulf between candidates, the more voters may overlook the democratic misdeeds of an incumbent leader or party in order to avoid handing over power to the dreaded alternative.
This now is the conundrum that confronts the Democrats. On the one hand, the defense of democratic constitutional norms demands that something be done to hold the President accountable for his offenses. The low probability that the Senate will vote to convict him is not the issue. Impeachment alone imposes both indictment and disgrace. And Trump has been desperate to avoid it. It is revealing that Trump calls impeachment a “dirty, filthy, disgusting word.” A self-confessed germaphobe who is obsessed with the fear of contamination, Trump reserves the images of filth for what he most abhors. And he abhors the thought of being impeached. Even if every Republican Senator votes to acquit him, it will be a recorded stain on his presidency that he richly deserves and that, more importantly, might deter similar wrongdoing by a future President.
On the other hand, impeachment carries a serious political risk, not so much that he will be acquitted in the Senate (a nearly foregone conclusion), but that he will use the conflict to intensely mobilize his support base in the same way that a hurricane draws heat energy from warm ocean water. Thus, the Democrats face a difficult and hugely consequential balancing act. On the one hand, they need to establish both the truth and the gravity of what happened. On the other hand, they need to do it quickly, so that they can pivot back to the substantive issues of the 2020 campaign. Recent elections in Turkey and Greece show that when opposition forces craft broad appeals that focus on people’s economic concerns and emphasize inclusion over polarization, they can defeat illiberal populism at the polls. When they double down on polarizing appeals to their base, they play to the strengths of the populist.
From the standpoint of defending democracy against presidential transgression, the Democrats are right to pursue Trump’s impeachment. From the standpoint of saving American democracy from a second Trump term, they will have to find a way to quickly move past the impeachment crisis to campaign on the substantive policy issues that more heavily motivate most voters.