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The Senate Has No Good Reason to Acquit Trump

It's still unlikely he'll be removed from office but the president has not provided allies with anything resembling a cogent defense.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is preparing for the first impeachment trial of a president in two decades. There are plenty of details to work out, but the overarching structure will likely be familiar. A group of House lawmakers will first present the articles of impeachment to 100 senators and lay out their case for convicting President Donald Trump. Trump’s lawyers will then present their arguments for his acquittal. The senators will deliberate over the evidence, and then they will cast their votes.

Trump knows he’s losing this battle. He green-lit a thuggish stunt by House Republicans to physically disrupt closed-door depositions on Wednesday. He also reportedly lashed out at Senate Republicans for not doing more to protect him, demanding hearings in his favor and more forceful defenses from GOP lawmakers in public. At the same time, he’s failed to provide them with a cogent defense of his actions that can be easily relayed to their constituents. All of this raises a very simple question for Senate Republicans: What, exactly, is the case for acquitting him?

Trump is already losing the case on the merits. The White House’s own memo of his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy proves that Trump asked a foreign government to undermine his political opponents for personal gain. As I’ve noted before, this is an impeachable offense in and of itself. Trump’s defenders have argued that he wanted to tackle corruption in Ukraine writ large, but the president only focused on cases that would falsely tar Biden and Hillary Clinton. Trump also fatally undercut that point by publicly urging Ukraine and China to open anti-corruption investigations into Biden on the White House lawn last month.

Many GOP lawmakers defended Trump in the inquiry’s early days by arguing that there was no quid pro quo. This talking point crumbles with each passing day. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, testified last week Trump told him in May to speak to Rudy Giuliani, the president’s legal fixer, about corruption in Ukraine before agreeing to a White House visit for Zelenskiy. Giuliani then told Sondland that same day that he wanted a public statement from Ukrainian officials on a mythical DNC server and the Burisma case—that is to say, a Clinton investigation and a Biden investigation. In order for Zelenskiy to earn the prestige and access that comes with a personal White House visit, he first had to prove himself to President Trump by undermining his domestic political rivals. (See also: Quid pro quo.)

More damaging evidence came on Tuesday from Bill Taylor, who currently serves as the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. His 15-page opening statement depicts a career civil servant trying to uncover and contain the fallout from a shadow foreign policy run by Giuliani, Sondland, and other close Trump associates. Taylor testified that Sondland told him in September that U.S. military aid and a White House visit for Zelenskiy would be “dependent on a public announcement of investigations” by Ukrainian officials. (Once more: Quid pro quo.) “[Sondland] said that President Trump wanted President Zelenskiy ‘in a public box’ by making a public statement about ordering such investigations,” Taylor told lawmakers.

Trump’s allies have long argued that there couldn’t be a quid pro quo because Ukraine didn’t know that Trump had blocked military aid when he asked Zelenskiy for a “favor” during the July 25 phone call. That argument looked specious from the get-go. There’s a case to be made that any such request is inherently coercive, given Ukraine’s reliance on U.S. diplomatic support and security assistance aid as well as the overall power imbalance between the two countries. The New York Times also reported that Ukrainian officials learned about the hold-up on military aid in early August, shortly after the July 25 call and multiple weeks before it became public.

Indeed, Ukrainian officials seem to have understood what was going on in the July 25 call from the start. In a public readout of the call released that day, the Ukrainian government said that Trump had “expressed his conviction that the new Ukrainian government will be able to quickly improve Ukraine’s image and complete the investigation of corruption cases that have held back cooperation between Ukraine and the United States.” Ukraine believed all along that carrying out Trump’s “favor”—opening investigations into his political rivals—would improve bilateral relations between the two countries. (Say it with me: Quid pro quo.)

Taylor’s testimony this week also shows that the pressure campaign didn’t relent after the freeze on military aid became public knowledge. He told House investigators on Tuesday that he learned from a National Security Council aide that Sondland had allegedly told one of Zelenskiy’s advisers on September 1 that the U.S. wouldn’t release the military aid until Zelenskiy “committed to pursue the Burisma investigation.” (You know the drill: Quid pro quo.) That led Taylor to text Sondland with his now-famous question: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”

According to Taylor, the answer he received was yes. “Ambassador Sondland responded asking me to call him, which I did,” the diplomat told House investigators. “During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.” (Once more for the people in the back: Quid pro quo.) Taylor said he later learned that Sondland extracted a pledge from Zelenskiy to announce the investigations in a CNN interview. The result would have been a political boon for Trump: Ukraine’s president, acting apparently of his own free will, announcing investigations that could implicate both Trump’s 2016 opponent and the then-frontrunner to challenge him in 2020.

Some of Trump’s defenders know they’re losing the “no quid pro quo” fight and have started arguing that there’s actually nothing wrong with it. “The United States engages in quid pro quos all the time when it comes to foreign assistance,” The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen wrote on Tuesday. “Our aid is not charity; Americans expect to get something in return for it.” It’s true that U.S. presidents regularly bargain with foreign powers, sometimes with quasi-coercive measures, to achieve American foreign-policy goals. But that’s not what happened here. All of the available evidence indicates that Trump sought to manipulate a foreign power into smearing Biden and other Democrats for his personal interest, not the national interest.

With the merits defense in tatters, Trump is left with attacks on the process itself. His foremost target for criticism is House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrats’ point man on the inquiry. Trump and his allies have sharply attacked the California lawmaker for giving a misleading statement on whether he’d been in contact with the whistleblower before the complaint was filed, and for exaggerating what Trump had said in the July 25 phone call during a hearing. House Republicans introduced a motion to censure Schiff, but Democrats tabled it on Tuesday. Their grievances are good fodder for Trump’s Twitter feed and Fox News broadcasts, but they don’t change the evidence and testimony gathered so far about the Ukraine scheme.

Many Republicans have also taken umbrage with Democrats’ procedural maneuvers, such as Pelosi’s decision to not hold a formal vote authorizing the impeachment inquiry. While the Nixon and Clinton impeachment process began with similar vote, the Constitution does not require it. They have also criticized Schiff’s decision to hold the depositions of key witnesses behind closed doors in a classified setting. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt compared it to the Star Chamber, a secret English court used by Tudor and Stuart monarchs to try their political enemies without due process.

It’s not a very good comparison, to say the least. The Star Chamber didn’t let potential witnesses defy its subpoenas without consequences. House Republicans who sit on the relevant committees are free to watch the depositions and ask questions of their own. Nor is there anything sinister about Democrats’ decision to depose witnesses in a non-public setting. Trey Gowdy, the GOP ex-lawmaker who ran one of the House Benghazi investigations, also used closed-door hearings when questioning witnesses to avoid a circus-like atmosphere. “If you want to get on the news, go rob a bank,” he once told his frustrated Republican colleagues.

So what else do Senate Republicans have to fall back on? Impeachment isn’t a process to be undertaken lightly. Public opposition can make it more difficult to justify a president’s removal from office, as shown by the Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House in 1998 and acquittal by the Senate in 1999. This time, all the signs are pointing in the opposite direction. Virtually every major poll shows that a majority or plurality of Americans support the impeachment inquiry, with many showing a plurality of support for Trump’s conviction and removal from office. Those numbers have only grown since the inquiry began.

What about the well-being of the nation? Trump’s caustic response to the inquiry undercuts the idea that keeping him in power is good for the nation’s civic health. He often describes the House’s lawful, constitutional process as a “coup d’etat” and a “lynching,” and he’s echoed supporters’ claims that it could lead to “civil war.” These implicit threats of violence only bolster the need to remove him from office. His erratic decision to pull U.S. troops out of northern Syria this month also makes it impossible for Republicans to cogently claim that acquittal is justified for the sake of international stability or national security.

The most persistent counter-arguments involve the upcoming presidential election. Trump’s allies often warn that Democrats are trying to reverse the 2016 election and interfere in the next one. Naturally, this argument would hold more water if Trump’s misconduct wasn’t directly related to the 2020 race. More importantly, the choice between impeachment and the election is a false dilemma. The Constitution allows the Senate to hand down two punishments when it convicts an impeached federal official: removal from office and disqualification from holding “any office of honor, trust or profit under the United States” in the future. In the president and vice president’s cases, a conviction results in automatic removal from office.

Permanent disqualification, on the other hand, is discretionary. The Senate’s Republican majority could theoretically vote in favor of convicting and removing Trump from office, then vote against the motion to permanently disqualify him from holding it in the future. This issue didn’t arise in the Nixon or Clinton sagas; the Twenty-Second Amendment forbids any person from being elected president more than twice and both men were already serving their second terms. Adopting this Solomonic approach for Trump would allow the Senate to punish him for his transgressions and still give the American people the opportunity to render a final judgment next fall.