The impeachment trial of President Donald Trump has begun. After a month of biding time, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has at last forwarded the articles of impeachment to the Senate and the conduct of the president is to be argued before a national audience. The rules of the trial have been set, and the president’s legal team has assembled his legal defense.
With opening arguments in progress, there are several issues which must be addressed. First and foremost, the two articles of impeachment approved by House Democrats along strict party lines — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — are not actually crimes. This marks the first instance in American history in which a president has been impeached for noncriminal activity (Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act and Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice).
As Trump’s legal team will contend, abuse of power is among the vaguest of nebulous charges which can be brought against a president in partisan fashion (Pelosi reneged on her original promise that Trump would not be impeached without bipartisan support). Further, obstructing Congress is not a crime; it is a sign of a healthy democracy in which the executive branch checks the power of the legislative branch. (It is also not obstruction to await a court ruling on a congressional subpoena).
While impeachment was not intended to be a purely political process, these proceedings have been executed in most partisan fashion. Moving forward without full support among Democrats and with none from Republicans, Pelosi rushed the impeachment process to completion, vacating an issued subpoena for fear that legal challenges might prevail and suggesting for weeks that there was not a moment to spare with democracy itself at stake. Then she sat on the approved articles for a month, serving only to handcuff several Democratic presidential candidates to their desks where they would not be campaigning for the nomination.
After presiding over a partisan and deficient inquiry, Pelosi expressed fear that Senate Republicans would not conduct a fair trial. Democrats called upon Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to recuse himself; Pelosi scolded her colleagues for cheering when the vote was made final; Sen. Kamala Harris had to pinch herself to keep from smiling when asked to comment on the impeachment, replacing the cackling grin with a somber frown upon learning that the camera had begun rolling.
There is great significance to Pelosi’s rushing the impeachment. As Rich Lowry put it over at National Review, “The time that Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to devote to impeaching Trump over Ukraine fell short of the time it would take to thoroughly investigate Ukraine, so impeachment took precedence, and the investigation gave way.” Now Democrats are pressuring the Senate into both conducting a trial and wrapping up the investigation which the House neglected to finish before transmitting articles of impeachment to the upper chamber.
What seems to be largely misunderstood is that once the articles of impeachment have been transmitted to the Senate the investigation is over. House Democrats should have thoroughly investigated all claims, elicited testimony from all relevant witnesses and reached the point at which no further charges were anticipated before transmitting the articles. If Democrats needed additional testimony (Bolton) or documents (Parnas) to make their case, this should have been done during the inquiry. It is not the responsibility of the Senate to fill in the blanks left by the negligence of House Democrats.
With regard to the president’s defense, the Trump legal team should not be arguing that the president’s conduct was “perfect.” It was not; in fact, it gave the appearance of impropriety. Nevertheless, Trump’s pressuring Ukraine did not result in anything of consequence as Ukraine received its aid and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky received his conference with Trump without having to publicly announce an investigation.
Because House Democrats failed to call the testimony of any witness who could offer insight into Trump’s intent before deciding that they were ready to vote, we do not know whether the president intended to benefit himself politically from pressuring Ukraine or whether he was merely seeking to root out possible corruption from the 2016 election. Given that foreign relations are comprised of quid pro quos, it is not exploitation to offer a favor in exchange for another during negotiations.
Quite simply, Democrats cannot remove a president from office for engaging in legal conduct for reasons which they disapprove. Doing so would be an actual abuse of power.
Photos below courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.
Kevin Catapano is a weekly columnist for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.