Of particular interest to me in this week’s House impeachment hearing was a moment when the chief counsel for the Republicans read aloud a quote about the dangers of a purely partisan, policy-based impeachment of a sitting president. This was from page 140 of my book with Joshua Matz, “To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment.” The passage continued by describing the even greater dangers posed by a purely partisan, personality-driven refusal to impeach and remove a president who has clearly committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But the Republican counsel left out that part.
After weeks of House impeachment hearings that resume Monday, Republican defenders of President Donald Trump have contented themselves with pointless, time-wasting calls for roll call votes; baseless complaints about the process, which was the most protective of a sitting president in the nation’s history; and deliberate distortions of what others had written or said. It all amounted to nonsense in the face of a deadly serious matter.
A president who uses the powers unique to his office to solicit what by any plausible definition is a bribe, commits one of the cardinal sins the Constitution identifies as requiring that president’s removal from office upon conviction by the Senate. No ifs, ands or buts about it. So the constitutional case is clear: Trump has done what the Constitution says any president must be removed for doing.
Facts prove Trump's personal interest
But why should ordinary citizens care that the president has tried to get something of value from a crucial ally (Ukraine) by using the official powers of his office and military funds that were approved by Congress to help that ally in its struggle with our principal global adversary (Russia)? Especially since they will have a chance to vote Trump out in less than a year?
To be clear, what Trump requested wasn’t anything to be done “for the United States.” There was no benefit to the nation, to us, in the public announcement Trump sought from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, either about the Bidens or the phony story about some secret server hidden in Ukraine containing proof of an anti-Trump conspiracy in 2016 that our intelligence agencies supposedly missed when they blamed the Russian government for intrusions in our election.
It’s the telltale personal nature of the benefit Trump demanded — technically, “requested” — that makes his conduct a bribe by any definition and an abuse of office in the sense of greatest concern to the framers. Any pretense that Trump was simply seeking to get Ukraine to clean up its act and fight corruption is blown out of the water by the proven facts:
►The Pentagon had certified Ukraine as having done all it needed to do in order to qualify for the $391 million in aid Congress had appropriated.
►Trump said nothing about fighting Ukrainian corruption in any of his conversations with Zelensky.
►What he sought was not actual investigation of alleged (and non-existent) corruption by the Bidens, but a televised public announcement that such an investigation was underway.
►And testimony about his overheard phone conversation with Gordon Sondland, his Ambassador to the European Union, made clear that Trump had no interest in Ukraine or its corrupt practices.
All of that establishes bribery, extortion, abuse of power, and much else that the Founders would have viewed as paradigm cases for impeachment and removal, and is identified as such in the text they left us to live by.
But this remains, for some, quite abstract. In principle, we care about the Constitution. In practice, not so much. The question is why citizens ought to consider this situation with unique seriousness while so many other daily concerns — raising a family, going to college, paying for health care — feel so much more pressing. The answer is one the Democrats urging the impeachment and removal of this president have a unique obligation to provide if they — all right, I’ll say it: we — are to succeed in our goal of protecting the Constitution from a president who doesn’t give two hoots about it, much less understand a word of it.
Protect right to pick our own leaders
To me, the answer is alarmingly obvious, so obvious that we’re in danger of not noticing it, much as a fish doesn’t notice that it’s surrounded by water. It is that literally all our freedoms — our safety from the dangers of living in a dictatorship, under the thumb of leaders who can silence or imprison us at will, ultimately depend on our right to select those who govern in our name and regulate our lives, from the president on down — and that comes down to the right to vote. Will this right remain intact? Or will it be exposed to lawless, often clandestine, manipulation by foreign governments that have anything but our best interests at heart?
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The dangers of such manipulation, including by increasingly sophisticated cyber-weaponry like the Sandworm software described in Andy Greenberg’s chilling new book, from Russia in particular but also from China, North Korea and other nations that mean us harm, are grave. And a president who goes as far as he can to enlist the help of such outside powers is an existential danger to all that matters.
As Stanford University law professor Pamela Karlan reminded the Judiciary Committee last week, it was none other than Justice Brett Kavanaugh who wrote in a 2011 decision later affirmed summarily and unanimously by the Supreme Court: “the United States has a compelling interest … in limiting the participation of foreign citizens,” much less foreign governments, “in activities of American democratic self-government, and in thereby preventing foreign influence over the U.S. political process.”
The point we need to stress is that it’s not just “the United States” that has this “compelling interest.” It is each and every citizen of this great land. That’s why, as Professor Karlan wisely emphasized in her testimony, this impeachment process isn’t just about separation of powers and checks and balances and other matters that might seem nerdy and theoretical. This impeachment process is about the right to vote. Your right to vote. Our right to live in a free country, governing our own lives. Nothing less is at stake.
Laurence H. Tribe, the Carl M. Loeb University Professor of Constitutional Law at Harvard and co-author (with Joshua Matz) of “To End A Presidency: The Power of Impeachment,” is advising House Democrats on impeachment. Follow him on Twitter: @tribelaw
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment stakes: The right to vote and pick our own leaders