The House impeachment inquiry must investigate the growing evidence that President Trump improperly pressured a foreign power to take action against Trump’s own domestic political opposition. According to reports, and confirmed by President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Vice President (and current presidential candidate) Joe Biden, for the purpose of boosting his own re-election prospects. Trump himself has admitted that he discussed Biden with Ukraine’s leader. Reports also suggest (and Giuliani pointedly did not deny) that Trump promised to release $250 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine (which Trump had withheld for no apparent legitimate purpose) in exchange for Ukraine’s help investigating Biden.
This must be investigated as part of an impeachment inquiry because it is unquestionably an impeachable offense. Under the Constitution, the president may be impeached for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” If President Trump and/or his surrogates offered implicitly or explicitly to release the funding to Ukraine in exchange for investigating Biden, then that may violate criminal statutes against bribery (which is specifically enumerated as an impeachable offense in the Constitution), extortion, and/or soliciting valuable assistance from a foreign national in a political campaign. But even apart from criminal statutes, it would amount to “bribery” within the meaning of the impeachment clause (which precedes and is broader than the criminal bribery statutes), an abuse of presidential authority to subvert foreign policy for personal political gain, and solicitation of an emolument from a foreign power contrary to the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause.
As the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin summarizes, “using government revenue to extort a foreign power to help you get reelected” is “obviously and blatantly a violation of the president’s oath of office and a threat to our democratic system.”
This misconduct combines three categories of Trump’s impeachable offense that we’ve documented before: seeking benefits from foreign powers for his own personal gain; inviting foreign powers to interfere with U.S. elections; and directing law enforcement to prosecute his political adversaries. As we noted in April (in reference to Trump’s illegal hush money payments to influence the 2016 election), “If Trump, as a mere private citizen, was willing and able to use a complex fraudulent scheme to suppress unfavorable information in order to improve his electoral prospects, then as president he will not hesitate to use his now far greater powers.” That appears to be exactly what happened here. We’ve also written how “[a] chief executive who uses law enforcement to persecute political enemies is characteristic of an authoritarian regime, not a constitutional republic,” noting Professor Charles Black’s conclusion that “the harassing use of any governmental power meant to be neutrally employed” is an impeachable offense and multiple past impeachments for “vindictive use of power.” Finally, while Alexander Hamilton probably did not envision this exact scenario, it fits right into the Framers’ repeated warnings about the danger of “foreign intrigue” in our affairs.
The House Judiciary Committee must act swiftly to determine whether to approve an article of impeachment for bribery, extortion, and improperly directing or endeavoring to direct a foreign power to investigate his own political adversaries. In this investigation, the Committee should avoid its past mistake of seeking redress in the courts; if the Trump administration blocks witnesses from testifying or refuses to provide critical evidence, the Committee is entitled to draw an adverse inference. Finally, the House must plan a full floor vote on this article of impeachment no later than November 15, 2019.