The big question about Trump’s impeachment is whether the scope should be narrow or broad. Initially, Nancy Pelosi seemed determined to keep the focus on Trump’s attempts to bribe/blackmail Ukrainian President Zelenskyy for personal gain. That, in and of itself, is enough for impeachment, but there is so much more … should the House expand the horizon and include Trump’s other violations of his oath of office? There are mixed feelings about it among the experts and journalists. Today, I would like to share New York Times columnist David Leonhardt’s view, for it is one with which I largely agree.
The Eight Counts of Impeachment That Trump Deserves
The lessons from Nixon and Clinton.
During Watergate, the House Judiciary Committee considered five articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon — and voted down two of them. During the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the House voted on four articles — and rejected two.
That history serves as a reminder that impeachment is not a neat process. It’s a chance for Congress and voters to hear the evidence against a president and decide which rise to the level of an impeachable offense.
My own instincts have leaned toward a targeted, easily understandable case against President Trump, focused on Ukraine. And that may still be the right call. But the House shouldn’t default to it without considering a larger airing of Trump’s crimes against the Constitution. A longer process, with more attention on his misdeeds, seems unlikely to help Trump’s approval rating.
So last week I posed a question to legal experts: If the House were going to forget about political tactics and impeach Trump strictly on the merits, how many articles of impeachment would there be?
I think the answer is eight — eight thematic areas, most of which include more than one violation.
In making the list, I erred on the side of conservatism. I excluded gray areas from the Mueller report, like the Trump campaign’s flirtation with Russian operatives. I also excluded all areas of policy, even the forcible separation of children from their parents, and odious personal behavior, like Trump’s racism, that doesn’t violate the Constitution.
Yet the list is still extensive, which underscores Trump’s thorough unfitness for the presidency. He rejects the basic ideals of American government, and he is damaging the national interest, at home and abroad. Here’s the list:
- Obstruction of justice.
Both the Nixon and Clinton articles included the phrase “prevented, obstructed, and impeded the administration of justice,” and Trump’s impeachment should start with his pattern of obstructing investigations.
He has admitted that he fired the F.B.I. director to influence the investigation of his own campaign. He has harassed Justice Department officials who are Russia experts, including Andrew McCabe and Bruce Ohr. Trump also directed his White House counsel to lie about their conversations over whether to fire Robert Mueller. Most recently, the White House tried to hide evidence about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, by improperly classifying material about it.
- Contempt of Congress.
Another article of impeachment against Nixon said that he had “failed without lawful cause” to cooperate with a congressional investigation. Trump has gone much further than Nixon, outright refusing to participate in the constitutionally prescribed impeachment process. As a result, the country still doesn’t know the full truth of the Ukraine scandal.
- Abuse of power.
The House will almost certainly adopt a version of this article, impeaching Trump for turning American foreign policy into a grubby opposition-research division of his campaign.
The most haunting part is that if a courageous whistle-blower hadn’t come forward, Trump most likely would have gotten away with it. He would have pressured the Ukrainian government to announce an investigation of the Bidens, and we in the media would have played along, producing the headlines that Trump wanted to see.
- Impairing the administration of justice.
That phrase appears in the second impeachment article against Nixon, which detailed his efforts to use the I.R.S., F.B.I. and others to hound his opponents. It’s a version of abuse of power — but distinct from the previous item because it involves using the direct investigatory powers of the federal government.
Trump has repeatedly called for investigations against his political opponents, both in public and in private with aides. For example, as the Mueller report documented, he pressured Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, to investigate Hillary Clinton: “You’d be a hero,” Trump said. This behavior has violated the constitutional rights of American citizens and undermined the credibility of the judicial system.
- Acceptance of emoluments.
The Constitution forbids the president from profiting off the office by accepting “emoluments.” Yet Trump continues to own his hotels, allowing politicians, lobbyists and foreigners to enrich him and curry favor with him by staying there. On Sunday, William Barr, the attorney general, personally paid for a 200-person holiday party at Trump’s hotel in downtown Washington.
The Democratic-controlled House has done an especially poor job of calling attention to this corruption. It hasn’t even conducted good oversight hearings — a failure that, as Bob Bauer, an N.Y.U. law professor and former White House counsel, told me, “is just astonishing.”
- Corruption of elections.
Very few campaign-finance violations are impeachable. But $280,000 in undisclosed hush-money payments during a campaign’s final weeks isn’t a normal campaign-finance violation. The 2016 election was close enough — decided by fewer than 80,000 votes across three swing states — that the silence those payments bought may well have flipped the outcome.
- Abuse of pardons.
The president has wide latitude to issue pardons. But Trump has done something different: He has encouraged people to break the law (or impede investigations) with a promise of future pardons.
And he didn’t do it only during the Russia investigation. He also reportedly told federal officials to ignore the law and seize private land for his border wall, waving away their worries with pardon promises.
- Conduct grossly incompatible with the presidency.
This is the broadest item on the list, and I understand if some people are more comfortable with the narrower ones. But the “grossly incompatible” phrase comes from a 1974 House Judiciary Committee report justifying impeachment. It also captures Trump’s subversion of the presidency.
He lies constantly, eroding the credibility of the office. He tries to undermine any independent information that he does not like, which weakens our system of checks and balances. He once went so far as to say that federal law-enforcement agents and prosecutors regularly fabricated evidence — a claim that damages the credibility of every criminal investigation.
You may have forgotten about that particular violation of his oath of office, because Trump commits so many of them. Which is all the more reason to make an effort to hold him accountable.