Let’s make this real simple. The impeachment clause of the Constitution describes three major assaults on the state as reasons for Congress to remove a president: “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
In terms of Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, there is little need to engage in a debate over what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Instead, they clearly fit the definition of bribery.
“[B]ribery may mean the taking as well as the giving of a bribe,” Charles Black, the late law professor, wrote in “Impeachment: A Handbook,” the definitive legal interpretation of impeachment for the past 45 years.
In this case, Trump appears to have used the power of his office to extort a foreign country (Ukraine) by twisting the good relations between the two and the military aid provided by the U.S. — things the Ukrainian government is dependent upon — into a bribe in exchange for a personal favor for Trump going into the 2020 election.
That the actions of Trump and his consigliere, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, were an attempt to extort the Ukrainian government is clear from the whistleblower complaint and the summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky.
After Zelensky was elected but before he was inaugurated, Trump and Giuliani (whom Zelensky knew was acting on behalf of Trump) began to threaten the good relations between the two countries. For months, Giuliani made it clear in public statements that Zelensky’s administration must open investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers:
- In May, Giuliani canceled a planned trip to Ukraine — because, he claimed, Zelensky was “surrounded by enemies of the president ... and of the United States.”
- Zelensky had requested that Vice President Mike Pence attend his inauguration in Ukraine on May 20 but “on or around” May 14, according to the whistleblower, “the President instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel.” Secretary of Energy Rick Perry led the U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration instead of Pence.
- Around the time of Pence’s canceled trip, it was “made clear” to the officials who informed the whistleblower’s complaint “that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office.” (The complaint uses a different transliteration of Zelensky.)
- Also in the middle of May, the whistleblower was informed by “multiple U.S. officials” that “Ukrainian leadership was led to believe that a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues” raised publicly by Giuliani (that is, opening investigations to help Trump’s reelection).
- Throughout June, Giuliani continued to insist that Zelensky open investigations into Biden and the circumstances of the Russian hacking of the DNC in 2016.
- “New Pres of Ukraine still silent on investigation of Ukrainian interference in 2016 and alleged Biden bribery of Poroshenko,” Giuliani tweeted on June 21. “Time for leadership to investigate both if you want to purge how Ukraine was abused by Hillary and Clinton people.”
- Then, in early July, Trump ordered all government agencies “to suspend all U.S. security assistance to Ukraine,” according to the whistleblower complaint. The Office of Management and Budget sent out its first message to other agencies on July 18 saying that Trump had ordered the suspension of aid “earlier that month.” A second message reiterating this message was sent to agencies on July 23.
- This precipitated the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky. On the call, Trump told Zelensky that the only country Ukraine could count on for support is the United States, according to the call summary. However, Trump added that the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine had not been “reciprocal.” Zelensky thanked Trump for U.S. support and said he hoped to purchase more military equipment from the U.S. soon.
- “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump replied, before explaining that Zelensky should launch investigations into Biden and the hacking of the DNC’s server in 2016. The word “though” clearly ties the “favor” to Zelensky’s immediately preceding praise for U.S. military support.
- The next day, on July 26, OMB sent a third message to agencies reminding them of Trump’s suspension of all U.S. support for Ukraine. No policy rationale was provided, according to the complaint. At the same time, White House lawyers moved the transcript of the call to a classified server.
Although there are gaps in the timeline of Trump and Giuliani’s actions that will be filled by Congress’ impeachment inquiry, what is known shows that Zelensky and his administration felt that they had to open the investigations Trump hoped would help his reelection campaign in order for Ukraine to remain in the good graces of the United States of America.
“[Impeachment] really has to do with whether or not this is compromising the security of the state to advance your personal or political interests,” said Philip Bobbitt, an impeachment scholar and former counsel for Democrats on the Senate Select Committee investigating Iran-Contra. “And it seems to me if all of these charges are true, it’s right down the center line.”
Of course, parsing whether a president should be impeached for bribery isn’t as simple as the fact that bribery is a listed reason for impeachment in the Constitution.
Impeachment, being such a serious act, does not necessarily apply to any and every crime. Therefore, not every act of bribery would constitute an impeachable offense. If the president gave $1,000 to a senator to attend a fundraiser, that might be bribery, but not necessarily worthy of impeachment. Or if the president paid money to get his son into a better private school, that would be a bribe, but should Congress impeach him for it?
An impeachable offense “has in common with treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors an effort to subvert the constitutional order,” Bobbitt said. “You’re trying to identify the national interests with your personal interest and you’re putting your personal interests ahead of the national interest in a way to compromise the national interest.”
That’s what stands out most in the actions Trump took to extort Ukraine. He used the international standing of the United States and the financial resources of the government as a chip to play to obtain a personal advantage in his coming reelection campaign. He sought to use his office and the machinery of the state to punish his personal enemies.
This is something that Trump’s alleged acts share with the impeachable offenses committed by President Richard Nixon, who resigned rather than be assuredly removed from office via impeachment. Nixon may not have faced impeachment for bribery, but like Trump, he used his office ― and the national security apparatus, in particular ― for personal and political gain.