Hypothetical: Hillary Clinton defeats Donald Trump is a very close election. Two years later, Trump announces that he’s running for president again.
Clinton is convinced that Trump engaged in Russia-related wrongdoing. She asks a member of her inner circle to investigate the matter.
Her investigator wants to obtain information from Russian officials with knowledge of possible wrongdoing. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, isn’t cooperating. But then, Putin is ousted and a political adversary takes his place.
President Clinton calls the new Russian leader and asks him to talk to her investigator and also to her attorney general about Trump’s alleged wrongdoing. She doesn’t ask that Russia open its own prosecution or even that a Russian prosecutor become involved. However, she does say that whatever the new leader can do with the U.S. attorney general “would be great” and suggests that the new leader “look into it.”
Query: In this hypothetical, is Hillary Clinton’s request improper? If so, is it grounds for impeachment proceedings?
In my opinion, the request is not improper. When potential wrongdoing by an American (whether a president’s rival or not) involves actions committed overseas, it may not be possible for Americans to investigate thoroughly without foreign cooperation. In such instances, there’s nothing improper about asking a foreign leader for cooperation.
But even if I’m wrong about that, Hillary Clinton’s hypothetical “ask” is not grounds for impeachment. No high crime and misdemeanor has been committed.
Caveats: (1) In my hypothetical, there is no quid pro quo. If Clinton made the release of foreign aid contingent on cooperation in her investigation, a different analysis would be required.
In the case of President Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s president, as presented in the “transcript,” there is no quid pro quo either. However, one may emerge from other facts.
(2) Other facts may show that, in context, Trump was asking not just for Ukraine’s cooperation with Giuliani’s investigation, but for Ukrainian prosecution proceedings. This seems to be how Ukraine’s president understood things. The “whistleblowers” report, which I have read but not digested, also raises this possibility.
(3) There is the separate question of whether it’s proper for the president to assign an investigation of a political rival to his private attorney and to inject that attorney into our relationship with an ally. I’m not sure how well this sits. However, I take no position on it at this point other than to say that giving Giuliani this assignment and having him talk to Ukraine’s president are not grounds for impeachment.