This is a column about two impeachments and the boundless human capacity for rationalization and self-delusion.
The first time I wrote about the prospect of a president being impeached was Jan. 21, 1998. The Monica Lewinsky story had broken that morning, and, as a reporter on the national staff of the Washington Post, I was asked to write an analysis of the potential legal risks to President Bill Clinton. My editors were reluctant to have a reference to impeachment in the lede of the article. They thought it sounded far-fetched.
As a result, the article began like this: “The allegations facing President Clinton — that he lied under oath about having a sexual relationship with a White House aide and told her to deny it — represent serious possible criminal violations that, if supported, could lead to his removal from office and prosecution.”
I was never among those who considered the Clinton impeachment a frivolous exercise. Lying under oath — even lying about private sexual behavior — is a serious abuse, even more so when done by the sitting president. So is attempting to obstruct justice. The Senate was correct in stopping short of removing the president from office in 1999, but Clinton’s conduct debased his office to the extent that an impeachment inquiry and a vote to impeach were warranted.
President Donald Trump’s behavior is of a different, and more alarming, magnitude.
The previous facts of Trump’s misconduct — his multiple efforts to obstruct justice in the probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — were enough to justify an impeachment inquiry but not to require one. The revelation that the president sought help from a foreign government to discredit a leading political opponent is such a misuse of the powers of his office that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would have been remiss in her own constitutional duties not to have responded.
There is no need to demonstrate a quid pro quo — although there appears nearly indisputable proof of one in the form of Trump dangling a presidential meeting in return for Ukraine’s willingness to investigate his political opponent. There is no need to prove additional such invitations for foreign meddling — although the president’s comments about China constitute evidence of his flagrant willingness to abuse his power. There is no need to pile on additional counts of impeachable behavior — although the administration’s highhanded move Tuesday to block the testimony of Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is, as House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), put it, among “further acts of obstruction of a coequal branch of government.”
Republicans have adopted various rationalizations to cope with this unpleasant reality. Some — including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri — have joined the he-was-just-joking caucus to deal with Trump’s invitation to Chinese meddling, an approach that fails to deal with Ukraine conduct and the likelihood of more incriminating evidence to come.
Others — most prominently Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio — have taken what might be called the yeast approach: The president’s conduct was “not appropriate,” he admits, but it does not rise to the level of an impeachable offense. That has the benefit of at least acknowledging the gravity of the moment, but it begs the question: If this conduct is not impeachable, what is?
Fifteen current Republican senators served in the House or Senate during the Clinton impeachment. All but one of those — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine — voted either to impeach Clinton or to convict him and remove him from office. I’d challenge any of them to explain why they deemed Clinton’s behavior so bad and are so unmoved by Trump’s.
One instrument of Republican efforts to distract from this difficult question involves Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president and, more to the point, current Democratic presidential candidate. It is possible to believe both that Hunter Biden’s up-to-$50,000-a-month deal with Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma traded inappropriately on family connections and to understand that the pressure campaign mounted on Ukraine by Trump and his minions to investigate the Bidens was an impeachable offense.
Another is the assertion, peddled Monday night on MSNBC’s “The Beat With Ari Melber” by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, that the president’s conduct did not violate any “rule, law or statute” and therefore does not constitute an impeachable offense. This is doubly wrong. First, it is clear that conduct can be a “high crime or misdemeanor” without meeting the precise elements of a criminal offense. Second, even if not necessary, it would be entirely possible to fit Trump’s conduct within the framework of criminal law — for example, soliciting something of value to his campaign from a foreign government.
Other diversions are now underway: Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s Deep State sputtering over Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, as if the former FBI officials had anything to do with Trump’s handling of Ukraine; faux legalistic hand-wringing over relying on hearsay and confronting accusers, as if such protections were relevant at the evidence-gathering stage. Meanwhile, the White House has weighed in with a belligerent eight-page letter refusing to cooperate with what it claims is a “constitutionally invalid” impeachment inquiry.
Polling suggests the American people are not distracted by this noise and grasp the gravity of Trump’s conduct. Perhaps their leaders will read and follow.