Impeachment is barreling forward toward President Donald Trump, and it’s not clear if he has any moves left to avoid a full-on collision.
But exactly how Democrats approach the impeachment of the president remains an open question. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff appear committed to largely to focusing the effort on the Ukraine scandal, since Trump’s efforts to induce the foreign government to investigate his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden are clear, salient and damning. Focusing on other issues could distract from this undeniable wrongdoing, introducing delay and controversy among Democrats and perhaps other lawmakers when impeachment could be clear-cut.
Some critics, however, are worried that impeaching Trump narrowly on the Ukraine matter risks letting him skate on his many other high crimes, such as those detailed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Failing to acknowledge these violations in an impeachment would trivialize Trump’s conduct and set a terrible precedent by lowering the bar for future presidents, they argue.
I think these opposing disagreements can largely be resolved. Ukraine should be the focus of the inquiry, given the way the issue has entirely overhauled the landscape for impeachment. But articles of impeachment can be drawn broadly, responding to consistent features of Trump’s wrongdoing in ways that hold him accountable for his other high crimes. How exactly such articles should be written would have to be worked out by the House committees and decided on a strategic basis, especially with regard to how explicitly Trump’s conduct in non-Ukraine matters is referred to. But the articles should make it clear that Trump’s conduct with regard to Ukraine stems from consistent patterns of behavior, revealing his corrupt intent and his unfitness for office.
Here are seven potential charges articles of impeachment could be based around, and how they would tie in to Trump’s broader high criminality:
1. Cheating in an election
A key aspect of the Ukraine scandal is that Trump was trying to gin up charges against a Biden, who has for months been seen as the frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. The most natural interpretation of this action is that Trump was trying to get dirt — real or contrived, it may not have mattered — on his likely opponent in the 2020 general election. Defenders of Trump may argue that he wasn’t really worried about the election, he was just genuinely concerned that Biden be held accountable, if guilty. But this excuse is laughable. Republicans, and Trump in particular, never showed any alarm about the Bidens in Ukraine until the Democratic primary was in sight; and Trump himself has shown no sincere devotion to cleaning up corruption in other countries, so it would be a remarkable coincidence if the one issue he really cared about just happened to involve a political rival.
This is a potent impeachable offense on its own, but it also ties in to Trump’s previous crimes. For example, Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is sitting in prison right now for conducting a criminal hush money scheme to benefit the president’s 2016 campaign, and prosecutors have indicated that Trump himself directed this violation of the law. It seems likely that Trump hasn’t been indicted in this case only because he is a sitting president, making it a strong candidate for an impeachable high crime.
2. Soliciting foreign interference
Related to the first proposed article, Trump could also separately be charged with soliciting foreign election interference. This is a campaign finance violation and a national security threat. And after the Mueller investigation, Trump can’t pretend he didn’t know better.
This type of article could also reference Trump’s famous called for Russia’s intervention into the 2016 election, directly asking the Kremlin to obtain Hillary Clinton’s private emails. Mueller documented that on the very same day, Russian hackers attempted to gain access to Clinton’s accounts. The Mueller report also documented that Trump’s campaign secretly planned its strategy around dumps of stolen emails from WikiLeaks, apparently with foreknowledge of their publication.
3. Foreign bribery
One way to understand Trump’s call with Zelensky and campaign to influence Ukrainian prosecutors is through the lens of a quid pro quo. As the other articles demonstrate, there are many other objectionable features about the conduct, but this analysis also seems to fit. Trump told Zelensky the United States’ kindness toward Ukraine has not been reciprocated, and then he specifically asked for a “favor” in response to Zelensky’s request to buy weapons from the U.S. Part of that favor was the investigation of Biden.
Now, making demands on foreign leaders in exchange for action by the U.S. is a typical part of the presidency that should not be criminalized. President Barack Obama’s administration, for example, made demands on Iran in exchange for easing sanctions — something that was arguably even good for Obama’s political fortunes.
But Trump’s request regarding Biden was purely driven by his personal interests. If Biden committed genuine crimes, the Justice Department could and should handle that matter on its own, without political influence. Trump was asking for the investigation because it would benefit him personally — which Rudy Giuliani acknowledged. In essence, he was asking for a bribe: If Zelensky did him a personal favor, Trump would give Ukraine various forms of support in his official role as the American president. (It’s not clear if the criminal statutes related to bribery and extortion apply in this case, but Congress can certainly apply the concepts if it deems them appropriate for impeachment.)
This article could also potentially be supported by a mountain of evidence that Trump is improperly accepting funds via foreign payments to his business empire. Many have argued that this violates the Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause and is impeachable in its own right.
This one is pretty straightforward. Pelosi has been arguing for months that Trump is obstructing Congress in its investigations of his interests. Recent reporting suggests that the Trump administration is carrying out this trend by trying to block witness testimony to Congress as a part of the impeachment inquiry.
This relates directly to Trump’s obstruction of justice, as outlined and analyze in the Mueller report.
Perhaps most urgently, Trump’s threatening of witnesses, including his actions toward, at the very least, the whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal and Michael Cohen in the Russia investigation, is a particularly pernicious form of obstruction. It needs to be roundly condemned, and it may be one of the most significant criminal charges Trump could face once he’s out of office.
5. Violating the Constitution
While Trump and Giuliani were enacting their pressure campaign toward Zelensky, the president froze military aid that had been approved by Congress for Ukraine. In addition to counting as part of a potential quid pro quo scheme, Reason Magazine argued that Trump’s actions could count as an “unconstitutional usurpation of Congress’ power of the purse.”
If this claim is supported by the evidence, it could warrant its own article of impeachment. And it wouldn’t be the first time Trump circumvented congressional powers. Trump has been accused of violating the Constitution by using an emergency declaration to seize military funds and redirecting them to pay for his border wall, a project that Congress explicitly declined to fund on its own. This article could also potentially encompass some of the allegations that Trump is improperly stonewalling Congress and flouting lawmakers’ subpoenas.
6. Targeting American citizens and opponents with law enforcement
By targeting Biden for non-predicated law enforcement investigations (if they were properly predicated, they wouldn’t have needed the president to intervene), Trump was not only trying to cheat in an election — he was violating the civil liberties of a political opponent. This would be true even if Trump has only tried to force Ukraine to investigate Biden, but on his call with Zelensky, the president also indicated he wanted the U.S. Justice Department involved by invoking Attorney General Bill Barr’s complicity in the scheme.
In fact, Trump was also violating the civil liberties of a third party — Hunter Biden. He may not be a sympathetic character in his own right, and he may not even be free from wrongdoing, but he still should not have had his civil liberties violated for political ends.
Mueller also uncovered similar behavior. According to the report, Trump repeatedly urged then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate Hillary Clinton behind closed doors. (Trump has also called for this publicly.) There have also been multiple reports suggesting that Trump tried to use government policy to target other enemies, such as urging that anti-trust action be taken against AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner, potentially to punish CNN.
7. Abuse of power
Trump could also be impeached on a broad abuse of power charge. Fundamentally, regardless of whether a “quid pro quo” could be established, and regardless of what details emerge about the stalled aid to Ukraine, asking Zelensky to investigate Biden was a blatant abuse of power. Just by being president of the United States, Trump has immense leverage over Zelensky, so asking for anything improper was necessarily corrupt.
An abuse of power impeachment article could also encompass many of Trump’s other impeachable offenses. One offense I haven’t mentioned yet was Trump’s promise, reported by multiple publications, that he would pardon Kevin McAleenan, then the head of Customs and Border Protection, if he violated the law by denying migrants asylum in the United States. Trump made a similarly illegal order to border agents, though apparently without the pardon promise, according to the reports. This is pretty much as clear an abuse of power as one can imagine.
This is an incomplete and partially over-lapping list, and some of the evidence supporting charges may be more debatable than others. And the exact language of the articles is a separate matter I’ve haven’t even tried to address here. But I hope readers can see how appropriately drafted articles could maintain a key focus on Ukraine without abandoning the commitment to hold Trump accountable for his many other impeachable offenses.
However, there are some potentially impeachable offenses that I don’t think could be plausibly encompassed by Ukraine-focused charges. Two of the most important such offenses are Trump’s handling of the migrant family separation policy and his botched management of disaster response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Both of these failures of government have expansive and lasting legacies that continue to haunt us and their victims. Typically, reprehensible policy choices and maladministration are not viewed in the United States as impeachable offenses, but these two instances are so egregious and showed such disregard for basic human dignity that they may well qualify.
Be that as it may, Democrats should be wary of biting off more than they can chew. It’s not clear that there’s any investigation that has come close to gathering enough facts on Hurricane Maria or family separation that will be ready in time for a speedy impeachment, and focusing on these issues may inject needless controversy into an already deeply contentious process. These moral stains on the U.S. government should not be forgot or ignored, though. Even if Trump were impeached and removed from office, it would be incumbent upon lawmakers to deeply investigate these matters, understand the sources of the calamities and violations, and potentially issue congressional motions or legislation in response, as warranted.