In the United States, a president can be impeached in the House of Representatives and later removed from office via a Senate trial because of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The “misdemeanors” part is important, as it means that impeachable offenses don’t necessarily have to be the types of felonies that would result in a long prison sentence.
But journalist Ryan Grim, in an October 10 article for The Intercept, argues that the Ukraine scandal does deal with some acts that could merit felony charges — and he specifically discusses some federal laws he believes could be problematic for President Donald Trump.
“Altogether, if the impeachment inquiry is limited simply to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, the charges could amount to more than ten years in prison,” Grim asserts.
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), as former Special Counsel Robert Mueller noted after concluding the Russia investigation, has a longstanding policy against indicting a sitting president. So the types of criminal charges Grim discusses in his article wouldn’t come about as long as Trump is president — and if he is reelected in 2020 and isn’t removed by a conviction in a Senate trial, Trump might remain in the White House until January 2025.
So Grim’s article is really dealing with a hypothetical prosecution in which Trump is no longer in the White House. But if Trump weren’t president, Grim contends, prosecutors might be looking for possible violations of a law like 18 U.S. Code § 872.
At issue in the impeachment inquiry is Trump’s phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, when — according to a partial transcript — Trump tried to pressure Zelensky into digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. Pro-impeachment House Democrats have been asserting that on July 25, there was a “quid pro quo” in which Trump made investigating the Bidens a condition of receiving military aid from the United States.
18 U.S. Code § 872, Grim notes, deals with “extortion by officers or employees of the United States.”
Grim explains, “The only question, here, is the definition of extortion. The law describes it as ‘the extraction of anything of value from another person by threatening or placing that person in fear of injury to any person or kidnapping of any person.’ Was the Ukrainian president, or any other person, put in ‘fear of injury’ by Trump’s move?”
The Trump White House has stressed that it has no intention of cooperating in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, including subpoenas. And Grim argues that such actions are “a prima facie violation of 2 U.S. Code § 192: ‘refusal of witness to testify or produce papers,’ punishable by a year in prison.”
Grim goes on to say that if Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, “felt coerced into helping with ‘a political campaign,’ that implicates 18 U.S. Code § 610 — which covers that crime rather clearly under the title: ‘coercion of political activity.’”
Grim quotes 18 U.S. Code § 595, noting that it is a crime when a government official “uses his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of president.”
Discussing 18 U.S. Code § 607 (which deals with “place of solicitation”) and 52 U.S. Code § 30121 (which address “contributions and donations by foreign nationals”), Grim points out that it is “illegal to solicit contributions to your presidential campaign from the Oval Office and illegal to solicit from foreign nationals no matter where you do it from.”
Grim notes that in federal cases, prosecutors have a practice known as “stacking” — they stack multiple felony charges as high as possible so that the defendant is more likely to agree to a plea bargain. And were the Ukraine scandal to result in a criminal case, Grim argues, a lot of “stacking” could be done.