On July 25, 2019, President Donald Trump picked up the phone in the White House residence and attempted to shake down a foreign leader.
Trump’s language was elliptical and soft, not direct and threatening, but his intentions were clear: He wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “do us a favor.” That was Trump’s entree to his improper, indecent requests that Zelenskiy’s government undertake two investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
Trump didn’t explain his motives, which of course were self-serving. First, he asked Zelenskiy to “find out what happened” with Ukraine’s supposed meddling, alongside Russia, in the 2016 U.S. election. Then there was Trump’s “other thing”: his desire that Ukraine “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 rival, and Biden’s son Hunter over their activities in Ukraine. “I’m sure you will figure it out,” Trump told Zelenskiy at one point in their conversation, as if to let dangle the potential consequences of ignoring the American president’s desires.
We know Trump was trying to squeeze Zelenskiy because a rough transcript of that phone call is a major piece of evidence in the Democrat-led House impeachment inquiry. The investigation, launched by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, connects enough dots: Trump was willing to hold for ransom a White House visit by Zelenskiy, the newly elected leader of a country that desperately needs American support in its confrontation with Russia. The inquiry also heard evidence that Trump may have suspended $400 million in military aid to Ukraine during the summer as further inducement to get what he desired.
Trump’s clear abuse of power
For Trump to coerce a foreign leader into doing his political dirty work is an indisputable abuse of U.S. presidential power. The fact that Zelenskiy evidently never started the investigations, while the military aid was released to his country, does not excuse Trump’s misdeed. We do not see clear-cut evidence Trump violated any law. Instead, he committed the offense of using public office for personal political gain.
And so how should the American people respond?
House Democrats likely will draft articles of impeachment, their next step in seeking to expel Trump from office. The Republican-led Senate almost certainly would vote to acquit. Those outcomes are not preordained, however. More evidence may come to light. Trump insists he did nothing wrong. But having watched the unfolding drama, it’s the responsibility of this page to assess, as of this moment, whether impeachment and its potential path to expulsion is the appropriate punishment.
The gravity of impeachment
Removal from office is the gravest action Congress can take to punish a president. To impeach and expel represents the overturning of an election, and thus the effective suspension of our democratic system due to dire emergency. In its 243-year history, the United States has never impeached and removed a president. For Congress to take the decision of who leads the nation out of the voters’ hands would be to change the course of American history in unpredictable ways.
Our wariness of impeachment is its political construction. The constitutional standard — treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors — isn’t precisely measurable. Each time that standard is invoked, Congress must define what it means by answering this question: Has the president’s action threatened the sanctity of American governance?
The companion question: Would expelling a given president from office set a precedent that is more likely to protect or to damage the body politic?
In our view, Trump’s Ukraine misdeeds are a serious abuse of his office. But they do not meet those tests of an impeachable offense.
To condemn, and to censure
The option we see more fitting to address Trump’s abuse of power is for both houses of Congress to censure him. We do not envision a weak-kneed admonishment that Trump can dismiss. A resolution of censure would spell out in detail the president’s betrayal of trust and his failure of responsibilities by placing his personal political interests above his obligations to the nation. This resolution could adopt the language that could otherwise appear in articles of impeachment.
While Trump likely would vilify his accusers, we hope that some Republican members of Congress would do the right thing and sign on. A condemnation of Trump’s conduct would allow a polarized nation to reestablish a common standard of ethical behavior that Trump — in his deviousness and recklessness — has jeopardized.
Twenty-one years ago, as Bill Clinton’s presidential future hung in the balance, we warned against impeachment and supported the idea of censuring him. The circumstances were different, but our argument was much the same.
Impeachment, we said on Dec. 17, 1998, is “a constitutional sword meant to be unsheathed only in the gravest, most unusual circumstances and to be wielded only to preserve the security and integrity of the republic.” Clinton’s offenses did not meet that standard, and neither do Trump’s.
A day later, in advocating censure, we wrote that impeachment is about protecting the nation, while censure is about punishing the officeholder: “Properly crafted, a censure would not be a slap on the wrist, but a historic condemnation.”
Censure does something else important. It ensures that final judgment of Trump’s misdeeds remains where it should be, with the American people on Election Day 2020. That is barely 11 months hence. At that time, voters will have the opportunity to expel him.
— Chicago Tribune