With Trump’s Impeachment, American Democracy Is on Trial

Chief Justice John Roberts swears in senators for Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.Senate Television via AP

The start of the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump is a reminder that the American political system does include safeguards and norms that are meant to protect the citizenry from corruption and misdeeds in the highest offices of the land. What happens in the Senate over the next few weeks will show whether these measures still matter.
The rule of law trumps power and presidents. At least, it is supposed to.The impeachment process, as shaped by the rules devised long ago by members of the House and Senate, is loaded with archaic tradition and stuffy ceremony. The House speaker signs articles of impeachment. House managers then stride through the Capitol complex to hand-deliver the articles to the Senate chamber. In a somber session, senators take a solemn oath to deliver “impartial justice” and sign their names one by one in an oath book near the marble Senate rostrum. These rituals were designed to highlight the gravity of the prospect of removing a president and to signal that in the United States, process and principle transcends all. The rule of law trumps power and presidents. At least, it is supposed to.
Trump has tested the system and pushed it to a breaking point—to this breaking point: only the third impeachment trial in the history of the republic. The narrow case against him brought by the House is strong: Trump used—that is, abused—the power of his office for personal political gain. The evidence is clear. His hand-picked ambassador to the European Union—a hotelier with no previous diplomatic experience who contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration—testified there was an explicit quid pro quo: Trump would not grant a highly sought-after White House meeting to the new Ukrainian president or provide congressionally approved military assistance to Kyiv unless Ukraine announced investigations to sully Joe Biden and to legitimize a crazy conspiracy theory that held Ukraine, not Russia, hacked the Democrats in 2016.
Trump’s actions were not in pursuit of any official aim. Period. He didn’t give a damn about corruption in Ukraine. In a May 10 letter to the new Ukrainian president—which only became public last week—Rudy Giuliani noted that his efforts in Ukraine on behalf of Trump (which centered on digging up dirt on Biden) arose out of his personal representation of Trump and served Trump’s private interests. That’s a nice way of saying Giuliani was on a purely political mission at Trump’s direction to gather from another government mud to hurl at Biden. This letter ought to be regarded as a smoking gun. And the General Accounting Office on Thursday released a finding that the withholding of aid to Ukraine that Trump ordered violated the law. In other words, the president, in his official capacity, had demanded illegal action for his private benefit—to obtain derogatory information on a 2020 political rival and to try to absolve Russia of intervening in the 2016 election.
Those data points should seal the deal. But there’s so much more. Other congressional testimony confirmed key elements of the extortion plot. The quasi-transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky depicts Trump putting the squeeze on the Ukrainian leader with a mobster-like request for a “favor.” In a stunning interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, Lev Parnas, the now-indicted associate of Giuliani who aided the former New York City mayor’s search for negative material on Biden, described a brazen shake-down scheme that was headed by Trump, and Parnas maintained that Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry each were co-conspirators. Parnas’ claims and other evidence suggest there was an even larger conspiracy in which Trump’s muscling of Zelensky was related to an attempt by Giuliani and two Fox News regulars—Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, husband-and-wife lawyers—to lobby William Barr’s Justice Department to help indicted Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash escape bribery charges in return for Firtash supplying them negative material on Biden and information that supposedly could discredit the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller. RudyGate is becoming a scandal of its own.
The full story is complicated. House Democrats thought they had a simple impeachment narrative: Trump improperly and arguably illegally pressured a foreign leader to take steps to influence the 2020 election in his favor. That would—or should—be enough to impeach a president. Yet pulling on that thread led to the unraveling of a bigger and uglier tapestry of crookedness. And all the shenanigans and skulduggery reflect a wider and deeper rot that Trump has imported into the White House and spread throughout the US government.
Leaving the Ukraine affair aside, the man who is now being tried in the Senate has not only violated a specific provision of the Constitution—the emoluments clause—he has trampled long-existing norms that serve as guidelines for the nation’s leaders. For example, a president should release his tax returns and not hand White House jobs to relatives, especially those who cannot receive a security clearance. Trump ignored both of these long-adhered-to but informal rules. He also ignored long-standing guidance about conflicts-of-interest. In fact, the moment Trump was sworn into office, he was in breach of this emoluments prohibition, which bans presidents from accepting gifts and payments from overseas governments and officials. Through the Trump Organization—which Trump still owns—he has pocketed money from foreigners and governments who buy apartments from his firm or pay for rooms in his hotels. Never has it been easier for seekers of influence and access—from across the oceans and from here in the United States—to buy it straight from a president. Trump, though, has disregarded this section of the Constitution and fought lawsuits that would force him to comply with it. This, too, could be the stuff of impeachment.
So could his interactions with Russia. During the 2016 campaign, Trump encouraged Moscow’s attack on the election, which was waged partly to help him win the White House. He also denied this attack was under way, echoing and signal-boosting Vladimir Putin’s we-didn’t-do-it disinformation, as his campaign maintained a series of covert interactions with Russia. While running for president, Trump was also secretly negotiating a deal to develop a tower in Moscow that could have earned him hundreds of millions of dollars, and his company sought help with the venture from Putin’s office—and yet Trump lied to voters and said he had nothing to do with Russia.
As president, Trump continued to deny, discount, downplay, or dismiss the Kremlin’s attack, complaining endlessly about the “Russian hoax.” According to the Washington Post, he even told senior Russian officials, during a meeting in the Oval Office, that he was not concerned with Putin’s assault on a US election. That was a serious dereliction of duty—a commander in chief informing a foreign adversary he didn’t care that it had attacked the United States. Such an action might be grounds for removing a president from office. As could be the multiple cases of potential obstruction of justice that Mueller documented in his final report. Mueller noted that due to a Justice Department policy that says a president cannot be indicted on a federal charge, he did not reach a decision on whether Trump ought to be indicted for any of these actions. That was a job for Congress, Mueller explained in his final report—basically saying this was possible impeachment fodder.
From grand betrayal to sleazy scandal, Trump has covered it all. His onetime fixer, Michael Cohen, now resides in a federal prison in part for making an illegal hush-money payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, who has claimed to have had an affair with Trump. According to the evidence in that case, Trump—identified as “Individual 1″—directed Cohen to slip the $130,000 to Daniels to shut her up before Election Day in 2016. (Cohen said that Trump also indirectly encouraged him to not tell Congress the full truth about the Moscow tower negotiations and their interactions with Putin’s office—a lie that helped to land Cohen in the slammer.) This means that the man who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a co-conspirator in a proven criminal conspiracy. That’s according to the US Department of Justice, which prosecuted the case.
Trump’s presidential tenure has been a never-ending swirl of conflicts of interest, nepotism, law-breaking, norm-squashing, and corruption. (And lies. Over 16,000 lies and false statements so far.) All this has placed a tremendous strain on the system. The media does not always know how to accurately and responsibly cover the flood of mendacity and misconduct. House Democrats, once they took control of their side of the Capitol, were unsure what to do in response to Trump’s transgressions. Investigate everything? Focus on the Mueller-documented obstruction? Just plow ahead to the next election? It wasn’t until a whistleblower who worked in the CIA sounded the alarm about Trump’s Ukraine caper that Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her colleagues realized they had no choice but to kick-start an impeachment inquiry.
In a way, Trump got off easy, with just two articles of impeachment: abusing his power in the Ukraine scandal and obstructing the House investigation of this episode by blocking administration officials from testifying and by preventing the release of documents to Capitol gumshoes. As for the Republicans, in a cultish manner, they have adopted the line that Trump does no wrong. They deny reality. They live in the land of Fox News, infected and overwhelmed by dearleader-itis. And their slavish devotion to Trump—out of love or fear—undermines the system, for the system is predicated on the notion that most of its inhabitants are good-faith actors who care about preserving it. The built-in protections of this system—such as those that are symbolized by the ritualistic ceremonies of impeachment—only work if they are fully honored. Should a significant number of the guardians of the system say, “Screw it,” a democracy may not be able to protect itself from an enemy within.
So much of Trump’s presidency has served up causes for impeachment. Yet still the national debate, due to Trump’s incessant shouting of falsehoods and the loud and robotic amen-ing of Republicans and the conservative media, often becomes fixated on debating reality—was an obvious quid pro quo a quid pro quo or not?—rather than what to do about that reality. The founders envisioned the possibility of a scoundrel gaining control of the White House. But could they envision an entire political party putting on blinders and becoming the loyal and unyielding foot-soldiers of that scoundrel? Could they imagine a wholesale attack on the rule of law and the principle that no man is above the law? Could they imagine a party-wide abandonment of the elemental notion of checks and balances? This impeachment focuses on one corrupt incident, but it addresses a deeper and wider assault on the nation’s governance and its most fundamental values. Even if the ultimate verdict for Trump is essentially pre-ordained, how this trial is handled and staged will be one indication of just how broken the system is.
In many of our homes, offices, workplaces, schools, places of worships, and businesses, fire extinguishers are stored and kept in accessible spots—just in case. They are rarely needed and not often thought about. But they have been purposefully placed in these positions as a precaution. They can be grabbed should an emergency arise and deployed to prevent or limit damage and injury. Our political system has its own safeguards—some written down, others that exist merely in practice. As Trump and his impeachment demonstrate, these protections are there. Yet they are not self-enforcing. They only work if they are used when a threat emerges and disaster strikes.