“Numerous historians and legal experts” are wrong about impeachment

Among those who write for the Washington Post’s news pages, Philip Rucker is arguably the most vicious and dishonest when it comes to President Trump. Rucker’s latest anti-Trump article is called (in the paper edition) “Probable acquittal [of Trump] will have long-term effects.” The subtitle is “Senate lowering bar for presidents’ permissible conduct, historians say.”

In the body of the article, Rucker claims that this view is supported by “numerous historians and legal experts.” Who are these “historians”? Rucker’s article cites only two: Jon Meacham and Timothy Naftali, both Trump haters.

Who are these “legal experts”? Rucker doesn’t cite any.

This failure is probably a function of laziness by Rucker. Given the widespread hatred of Trump in academia, Rucker could have found “numerous historians and legal experts” to back his claim that the Senate, when it acquits Trump, will lower the bar on what conduct is impeachable.

The claim is nonsense, though. Trump was impeached without any allegation that he committed a crime or violated a statute. No president has ever been impeached without a crime or statutory violation in the picture.

Andrew Johnson was accused of violating a statute that carried a possible prison sentence. Bill Clinton was accused of perjury. The articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon alleged conduct that could be charged as criminal in an ordinary court.

Trump stands accused, in essence, of making substantive U.S. foreign policy decisions based on his desire to be reelected president. No president has ever been impeached for this.

Nor is Trump the first president to base an important aspect of his foreign policy on electoral concerns. Barack Obama, among other presidents, did it — or says he did.

Obama told Russia’s president that after his reelection, his policy towards Russia would change. This is an admission that Obama’s pre-election policy towards Russia was (1) the product of his desire to be reelected and (2) not the policy he thought best for America.

Trump, for a brief time, did something similar, though less egregious. His policy towards Ukraine, at least with respect to providing military aid, was the product of his desire to defeat Joe Biden if the Democrats were to nominate him, and perhaps his desire to undermine Biden’s attempt to win the nomination so Trump could run against a weaker nominee.

Unlike Obama, however, it’s not at all clear that Trump was eschewing the policy he thought best for the country. From a policy perspective, giving military to aid to Ukraine is probably a matter of indifference to Trump. Moreover, even for those of us who believe aiding Ukraine is important, doing so (or not) is less consequential than our overall policy towards Russia, the country whose aggression Ukraine is trying to resist.

It’s possible that Obama was lying to Ukraine’s president when he said, in effect, that his Russia policy was based on electoral considerations and was not the policy he thought best for America. But if the standard for impeachment is what Meacham, Naftali, Rucker, and Rucker’s legion of historians and legal experts believe it to be, then, at a minimum, Obama should have been the subject of an “impeachment inquiry.”

He wasn’t, and I’m pretty sure that neither Meacham, Naftali, nor Rucker called for such an inquiry.

They were right not to. Obama’s conduct didn’t meet the constitutional standard for impeachment. Neither does Trump’s.

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