President Trump just broke the system.
Over the past year, there have been three main arguments against impeachment: 1) Trump has done nothing wrong. 2) Trump has acted badly, but he hasn’t violated the laws. 3) Trump has acted badly and might even have violated the law, but the American people should make the call about whether he should be removed at our next presidential election.
The first argument has fallen by the wayside. No one can any longer reasonably argue that Trump has done nothing wrong.
The second is also pretty clearly false. The Mueller report documents criminal violations in the form of attempts to obstruct justice. In addition, the evidence emerging in the context of the Ukraine phone call strongly supports the view that the president has violated constitutional law in the sense of failing to execute the powers of his office “faithfully” as required by his constitutional oath of office.
The Mueller report probed this concept of “faithful execution” and, to interpret it, cited a 1755 dictionary written by Samuel Johnson, which defined the term “faithfully” as “[w]ith strict adherence to duty and allegiance.” The report continues: “The concept of ‘faithful execution’ connotes the use of power in the interest of the public, not in the office holder’s personal interests.”
Whether those criminal and constitutional violations rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors is a question of judgment. In my judgment, they do.
That leaves us with the third argument that all of this should be settled by our next election. The idea that the American people should judge Trump’s behavior is, of course, correct. We the people are the ultimate judges of our representatives. The problem, however, is that our capacity to serve as judges in this way depends on the existence of free and fair elections.
The evidence in the case of the Ukraine call reveals that the president has already begun to use all the powers of his office to control the outcome of the election. To improve his chances of reelection, Trump is not merely relying on his opportunity as president to make good policy in the best interests of the country — an opportunity no other candidate has. He is also using his Justice Department, his State Department and his control of defense budgets to set the stage for a highly effective takedown of a political opponent.
Our presidential elections cannot have credibility and legitimacy if the president behaves in such a way. This is what makes this a Watergate moment. We can’t punt a judgment of the behavior of our president to the next election, if we have no solid basis to believe we will have a free and fair election.
This is the sense in which Trump just broke the system. He has not sought to steal the papers of a political opponent. Instead, he has sought to rob the American people of the integrity of our elections. He is stealing the very mechanisms we have for holding the executive to account.
Ask yourself about the policy domains you care most about: Federal judges? Abortion? Immigration? Freedom of religion? Climate change? Wealth inequality? Are you willing to sell your freedom down the river to have the policy outcome you desire? Or do you want to be able to pursue the policy outcomes you desire within the framework of a free republic of equal citizens?
We do not have to keep our democracy. Other forms of government are possible. Take China’s autocracy as an example. Some argue that China does just fine without free and fair elections.
I myself believe that the single best path to human flourishing lies through the freedom that belongs to equal self-governing citizens. I myself am not willing to give up free and fair elections.
Trump is asking us to give this up. Sadly, it is impossible to use an election, where he is wielding the powers of his office as he is, to settle such a question. For these reasons, the third argument against impeachment no longer passes muster.
We have only one mechanism left for addressing the situation in which we find ourselves, and its name is impeachment.