The Incredible Shrinking Impeachment

The Democratic grounds for ousting Trump are weak—and damaging to constitutional norms.

By the Editorial Board     December 12, 2019

So that’s it? That’s all there is? After all the talk of obstruction of justice, collusion with Russia, bribery, extortion, profiting from the Presidency, and more, House Democrats have reduced their articles of impeachment against President Trump to two: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Honey, we shrunk the impeachment.

Democrats on the Judiciary Committee will vote as early as Thursday on the text of the two articles they unveiled Tuesday, and then they will rush it to the floor next week. It’s enough to suspect that Democrats understand they are offering the weakest case for impeachment since Andrew Johnson, that the public isn’t convinced, and so they simply want to get it over with.


At least Johnson was impeached for violating a specific statute, the Tenure of Office Act, by firing Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. There was wide agreement that Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton violated criminal statutes. In this case Democrats don’t even try to allege a criminal act.

Whatever happened to bribery and extortion? Democrats spent weeks talking them up as the crimes of Mr. Trump’s Ukraine interventions. They had turned to those words after focus groups with voters found them more compelling than “quid pro quo.” Yet suddenly they’re gone. Have Democrats concluded that Mr. Trump’s actions aren’t illegal under statutes that have specific meaning?

Democrats have retreated instead to charge “abuse of power,” a phrase general enough for anything Congress wants to stuff into it. They don’t even pretend any more to prove a quid pro quo. Instead they assert that Mr. Trump, in his phone call with Ukraine’s president, “solicited the interference of a foreign government” in the 2020 election “in pursuit of personal political benefit.” They also assert that this “compromised the national security of the United States and undermined the integrity of the United States democratic process.”

Their problem is that Mr. Trump didn’t withhold military aid to Ukraine, and even if he had he would have merely been returning to Barack Obama’s policy of denying lethal aid. How would that have jeopardized national security? Every President also solicits actions from foreign leaders that he hopes will help him politically at home.

We don’t condone Mr. Trump’s mention of Joe Biden in his call to Ukraine’s President, which was far from perfect and reflects his often bad judgment. But “abuse of power” on this evidence is a new and low standard for impeachment that will come back to haunt future Presidents of all parties.

As for corrupting the 2020 election, even if Ukraine had announced an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden, Mr. Trump couldn’t know how effective it would be, how long it would take, or whether it might even exonerate them. The election is still a year away. If the mere announcement of a foreign government’s investigation into corruption can poison a U.S. election, then American democracy must be weaker than even its enemies think.

The second Democratic article is weaker in that it amounts to impeaching Mr. Trump because he is resisting their subpoenas. “Without lawful cause or excuse, President Trump directed Executive Branch agencies, offices and officials not to comply with those subpoenas,” the article charges.

His lawful cause is defending his presidential powers under the Constitution. Every modern President has to some extent or another resisted Congressional or special-counsel subpoenas. Nixon and Mr. Clinton did until they lost at the Supreme Court. House Democrats are refusing even to fight in court, claiming impeachment gives them plenary power to see all documents and any witnesses they want.

This ignores that the Constitution stipulates co-equal branches that each have the right to defend their powers. If Democrats are right in their claim, then every President essentially works for Congress. We should skip elections and let Congress choose the President.

Democrats also claim the emergency of time, and as usual Rep. Adam Schiff puts this case in the least credible way. “The argument ‘why don’t you just wait?’ amounts to this: Why don’t you just let [Mr. Trump] cheat in one more election? Why not let him cheat just one more time?,” Mr. Schiff told the press as the articles were unveiled.

But Mr. Trump didn’t cheat to win in 2016, as Robert Mueller’s Russia collusion investigation demonstrated after two years of looking. As for 2020, the Constitution includes no clause for pre-emptive impeachment to prevent acts that a President might commit.

Democrats wrap these charges in high-toned rhetoric about “this solemn day” and quotes from Benjamin Franklin. But they are essentially impeaching Mr. Trump because they despise him and the way he governs.

This is the classic standard of “maladministration,” which the Founders explicitly considered but excluded from the Constitution as grounds for impeachment. They did so because they feared that partisan Congresses would too easily impeach Presidents of the opposite political faction on this subjective basis, rather than for serious offenses.

In their wisdom, the American people seem to have figured all this out. Despite one-sided lobbying by the impeachment press, the polls show that a majority opposes removing Mr. Trump from office. This may be the real explanation behind the Democratic move to shrink impeachment. Democrats now want a fast and furious vote to satisfy their most anti-Trump partisans, dump the mess on the Senate, and campaign on something else.

They shouldn’t get off that easy. By defining impeachment down, they are turning what should be a rare and extraordinary constitutional remedy into a routine tool of partisan warfare. They are harming constitutional norms, as the liberals like to say.

Americans will decide in 11 months whether Mr. Trump deserves to remain in office. But they should also keep the impeachment vote very much in mind when they decide whether Democrats deserve to keep the House.




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