November 6, 2019 | Reading Time: 3 minutes
To the Republicans, What Counts as Impeachable Conduct?
Extortion isn't enough. Is treason?
The Senate Republicans came up with a new strategy over the weekend to defend the president against accusations of abusing the authority of his office for personal gain.
The plan goes like this: OK maybe it was quid pro quo when Donald Trump asked Ukraine’s president to investigate his American rivals in exchange for military aid, but it wasn’t the bad kind. The bad kind is corrupt. The good kind is what America has been doing since World War II, nudging nations toward just governance. Trump was only asking Ukraine to fight corruption. The Bidens just happened to be in the mix is all.
“Cleansing the office” isn’t good enough.
Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said, per the Post, that “there’s lots of quid pro quos” in US foreign policy. “We’ve done quid pro quos a lot of times,” he said. “The question isn’t whether it was quid pro quo; the question is: Was it corruption?” Ron Johnson of Wisconsin said the US puts conditions on foreign aid all the time. “Those are legitimate reservations. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not impeachable.”
Well, it turns out the president’s hand-picked ambassador said nuh-uh. Actually, he said Tuesday to House investigators, Trump was quite explicit about what he wanted from Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s new leader. In fact, Trump didn’t want him to really investigate Joe and Hunter Biden for corruption. All he wanted was for him to merely say he was. The key was Zelensky himself saying it publicly and loudly, probably so Trump could later point to it as evidence of whatever false accusation he invents.
Gordon Sondland is Trump’s ambassador to the European Union. “I now recall speaking with Mr. [Andrey] Yermak, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks,” Sondland said in an update, referring to an aide to the Ukrainian president. “Soon thereafter, I came to understand that, in fact, the public statement would need to come directly from President Zelensky himself.”
So, yeah, that’s the bad kind of quid pro quo. It’s, you know, what they call extortion.
When all is said and done—that is to say, when the Republicans have stopped lying so much—a pattern should become clear. This is how Donald Trump operates. It’s what he’s done since taking office. It’s what he did as a businessman. It’s what he did just days ago when he floated the idea of shutting down the federal government unless the House Democrats quit trying to impeach him. For the president, all quid pro quo is corrupt quid pro quo, because every exchange is to benefit him personally. This pattern is difficult to see under a mountain of Republican lies. But that’s not the only pattern.
The Republicans said recently that the impeachment inquiry was illegitimate as long as the House hasn’t authorize it. So the House authorized it. Is it now legitimate? Nope. Then they said Trump’s actions were impeachable if they were corrupt. So we know they were sooper corrupt. Are they now impeachable? Don’t hold your breath.
The Republicans can’t be trusted to commit to a clear standard of what counts as impeachable conduct. You could say their faithlessness was pre-ordained. Lindsey Graham, the president’s staunch defender, led the GOP’s prosecution of Bill Clinton’s Senate trial in 1998 when he was a House member. The standard then was lying. Lying!
Some appear ready to look treasonous.
Clinton lied to a grand jury about his sexual relationship with an intern. Then he dragged his feet when cooperating with investigators. That counted as obstruction! So lying and obstruction (sorta) were enough for Graham to lead the way in “cleansing the office.” “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office,” he said. “Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.” And now? “I’ve written the whole process off,” he said. “I think this is a bunch of BS.”
Given that Donald Trump has lied more than 13,000 times since 2017, and given that even the US Department of Justice is actively obstructing justice, it’s fair to ask at what point would Trump meet the Republican standard of impeachable conduct. The signs are not encouraging. Some Republicans appear willing to look treasonous to save the president, suggesting that even treason would fail to meet their so-called standard.
Rand Paul said he’d be willing to name of the whistleblower whose complaint is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. That would be illegal, for one thing. For another, Paul’s statement appeared coordinated with Russian state news outlets. Julia Davis, an expert of Russian media, wrote in the Daily Beast Wednesday that as soon as Paul asked the US press corps Tuesday to unmask the whistleblower, the “Kremlin-controlled heavy hitters—TASS, RT, Rossiya-1—disseminated the same information.”
The move, she said, was “a 2019 re-play of ‘Russia, if you’re listening.’”
How far are the Republicans willing to go? It doesn’t look good.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.