Noah Harrison: Impeachment is risky but necessary

Monday, October 7, 2019 - 5:38pm

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After a whirlwind week in which records emerged that President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, the leading Democratic presidential candidate, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi opened a formal impeachment inquiry against the president. Given the severity of this abuse of power, it seems likely that Trump will become the third president in U.S. history to be impeached. Impeachment will be divisive, politically risky and unlikely to lead to conviction in the Senate. Impeachment is also wholly justified and urgently needed.

Efforts to impeach Trump have swirled since the early months of his presidency, but never gained significant traction. Early impeachment votes in 2017 were deemed premature by Democratic leadership and easily defeated. In 2018, Trump was criminally implicated in lawyer Michael Cohen’s trial for breaking campaign finance laws, but was never charged due to existing Justice Department guidelines against indicting sitting presidents, and the matter was overshadowed by the impending release of the Mueller report. The report did not exonerate Trump, but failed to provide smoking-gun proof of collusion or obstruction of justice as many had predicted, and public support for impeachment ebbed. 

Now, with this latest scandal, impeachment is fully warranted and critically needed to defend democratic rule of law. Trump’s closest allies have rushed to his defense, but make no mistake, the details of the scandal are absolutely damning. To recap: In May, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, planned to travel to Ukraine and meddle “in (the) investigation” against Biden’s son. Giuliani canceled his trip after backlash over the clear impropriety of his objectives. Giuliani later spoke to Ukrainian diplomats in Paris, but Ukraine found “no wrongdoing” after conducting the investigation.

On July 18, Trump delayed $400 million worth of military aid to Ukraine, which is currently in a proxy war against Russia. On July 25, Trump spoke with the Zelensky over the phone. A reconstructed record of the call shows that Trump told Zelensky the U.S. is “very good” to Ukraine, but said he “wouldn't say that it's reciprocal necessarily.” Zelensky then brought up military aid and a desire to “buy more Javelin (missiles),” to which Trump immediately responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though.” Trump went on to ask Zelensky to investigate “Crowdstrike” (a debunked conspiracy theory that Russia was not behind 2016 election interference) and “look into” the Biden investigation. Zelensky promised to “look into the situation” and Trump responded that both Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr will be in touch.

In August, Giuliani met with Ukrainian officials again. On Aug. 12, a whistleblower filed a complaint about the incident, detailing the call and an apparent effort by the White House to cover it up by hiding the records in a system reserved for ultra-classified documents. The law requires whistleblower complaints to be reported to Congress, but both the White House and the Justice Department advised the Office of the Director of National Intelligence against releasing the complaint, and the complaint was not reported to Congress until Sept. 9 almost a full month after the complaint was filed. That day, Trump lifted the hold on military aid, but the backlash was already growing and the impeachment inquiry was announced on Sept. 11.

Summarized briefly, Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to pressure Ukraine’s president into investigating Biden, his potential 2020 opponent, and the White House then tried to bury the evidence. In other words, Trump used the powers of his office to attack a political rival and then further used his powers to cover it up. This is what dictators do. Trump’s actions constitute a clear threat to the integrity of our democratic institutions, and the impropriety of the situation cannot be overstated. 

Abuse of power was the second article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon. Experts say extortion, bribery, breaking campaign finance laws and obstruction of justice are among the crimes Trump and his aides may have committed during the affair. Impeachment is absolutely warranted in response to this latest scandal. 

Many of Trump’s defenders and some of his critics have pointed to the political impacts of impeachment as an argument against it. As the argument goes, the public is against impeachment, and some speculate the impeachment will backfire on Democrats in 2020. Public opinion on impeachment is malleable and will largely depend on how well each side sells their case, but there is plenty of evidence that the public will back impeachment.

Support for impeachment jumped dramatically after news of the Ukraine scandal broke. As of now, by a ten-point margin, a majority of Americans support the impeachment inquiry. Notably, support for impeachment is growing among Democrats, independents and Republicans. Furthermore, when pollsters ask whether it is appropriate for a president to ask a foreign government to investigate a political rival or withhold aid to a country for personally beneficial purposes, voters say no by a 30 and 48-point margin, respectively. These numbers show that the public overwhelmingly disapproves of what Trump did, and support for impeachment could quickly grow as more details emerge.

The chances that impeachment removes Trump from office are low but not zero. While many Republicans like Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Mike Braun, R-Ind., have rushed to Trump’s defense (while simultaneously admitting they haven’t even read the complaint), other Republicans have acknowledged the severity of the situation. Moreover, former Republican senator Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., speculated 35 of his GOP colleagues would vote for impeachment if the vote were secret, suggesting that Republicans could be open to impeachment if the political winds shift. 

But even if impeachment is destined for acquittal in the Senate, Democrats have a duty to impeach. The Ukraine scandal reveals the president believes himself to be beyond reproach, acting with reckless disregard for the law.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.