Over the past days, weeks, and months, as the impeachment process has moved forward from a probe, to hearings and fact finding in the House of Representatives, to the beginnings of the Senate trial, one thing has become readily apparent: President Trump has abused his office and his power in order not to benefit the nation, but to personally benefit himself and his political prospects in the 2020 election.
It is clear from the evidence presented – all the transcripts, the text messages, the phone conversations, the memos, the testimonies, the emails – that President Trump was intent on attaching his own unilateral conditions to Congressionally-appropriated foreign aid funds – specifically, the condition that Ukrainian officials would announce investigtions into the son of potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden. It’s clear that the Trump administration had no interest in what these investigations actually uncovered, in the pursuit of corruption, or in whether the investigations ever actually happened. What they wanted was the mere announcement of an investigation for PR reasons. By having Biden under the pall of an investigation in a foreign country, Trump and his political team believed they could tilt the 2020 election further in their favor.
This is the textbook definition of abuse of power. The President wasn’t trying to protect American foreign policy or economic interests by asking for an investigation. He wasn’t acting on intelligence from his own national security teams. What President Trump wanted was for the US government – the government you and I pay for – to be used to score personal political points in his favor. He used money that had been appropriated by Congress, and held that money up, in defiance of his Constitutional duty as executor of funds, in order to try to damage a political rival in an upcoming election. This is abuse of power. This is the use of political office – use of the public trust – in order to further himself, and himself only.
Abuse of power is, and should be, an impeachable offense. Our Founders, in crafting our form of government in the Constitution, were very clear in their fear of a tyrannical executive power (just like the one they had escaped from), and in their intent to constrain the worst excesses of any executive office from abusing that power. This is why they included an impeachment clause, and why they left the conditions of impeachment slightly vague and open. They foresaw the fact that they, in the late 18th century, could certainly not predict the various ways office holders might use and abuse their office in the future.
What the President has done is not just “politics as usual.” He is not engaging in actions akin to former presidents. Yes, politicians use the prospect of foreign aid to extract promises from foreign actors quite often. But the promises they are extracting are promises of action that furtherss a policy objective of the United States, not of themselves personally. Often, foreign aid will be predicated on the commitment from the receiving nation to hold fair and free elections, or to open up free markets, or to withdraw from hostilties of some sort, among other priorities. But what President Trump has done in this instance is predicate those funds on a promise made to him personally, for his sole benefit. This is a perversion of national resources in the pursuit of political interest. This is not normal.
Beyond his actions, this President and his administration has resorted to the historic tools of authoritarians and demagogues. Rather than answering in good faith the claims and arguments of their critics, they have resorted to tearing down the one of the most crucial features of any democracy: the free press. Attacks on the media stand in for actual answers that contain substance. The media becomes a convenient scapegoat and straw-man for any authoritarian. Attacks on the values of truth and honesty are attacks on the life blood of participatory government. When our leaders feel the need to obscure and confuse about their actions and words – when they go on television, and tell blatant, shameless lies in the face of all evidence – they have shown that they are unable to defend their own actions on this merits. They create their own truth, their own version of reality, and do everything they can to keep their followers from having access to or trust in traditional sources of truth and integrity. Our Founders understood the importance of education, a free press, and free speech; this administration has launched all out attacks on all three.
Despite the faults it has, and the tendency among some to absolutize its words and ideas, the US Constitution is a remarkable governing document. Specifically, Americans can and should treasure the ideas of self government, and within that, of a national government wherein the interests and passions of individuals and specific interests are not held to be more important than the needs of general welfare of all people. Our Constitution, when read in its best light, is written to ensure that everyone is placed on a equal footing with regards to governance and decision making. It was written in the ominous shadow of tyranny, monarchy, and executive overreach. It was written in order to ensure that the lives of regular, everyday citizens would not be devalued in comparison to the most powerful. While we as a people have always struggled to live up to the great potential contained in our founding documents, that should not obscure the high ideals contained therein.
Thus, any American who claims to be in favor of our Constitutional form of governance, who claims to be concerned about the depredations of centralized government, and who values the ideals of freedom, democracy, and equality, should recognize that the actions of our current administration with regards to Ukraine strike at the heart of these ideals. The President is perverting our most cherished common values in his actions and his words. Rather than pursuing the common interest, President Trump has elevated himself above the rest of us; his actions and words show clearly that he doesn’t believe himself to be a servant of those of us who pay his salary and who he is supposed to be working for. Instead, he believes we, and our government, are here to serve him, and somehow, in doing so, our common interest might be touched.
Constitutional democracy only works with trust and with integrity among those who are entrusted with power. This President has failed to hold this trust, or to act with integrity. As a result, it is past time to remove him from office, and begin the process of healing our wounded civic character. Our democratic future depends on our ability, at this moment, to defend it. We are at an inflection point in history, and we can either choose to defend our democratic heritage, or continue down the path towards authoritarianism dressed up in the veil of constitutionalism. Despite the failure of the Senate to do the right and proper thing yesterday, we as a people should spend the time between now and November making the case for removing this President from office at the ballot box.