The Worst Impeachment in History

An epigram likely composed by the lawyer-poet John Godfrey Saxe says laws, like sausages, “cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”  That observation certainly applies to the motives and methods that led to what author Fred Lucas concludes was “the worst impeachment in American history.”  In this case, however, the rhetorical saw should be revised to cover the production of really rotten sausages.

That summary judgment shouldn’t cause one to assume that Lucas’s Abuse of Power. Inside The Three-Year Campaign to Impeach Donald Trump is a one-sided blast against Democrats.  Indeed, for Trump supporters, the author’s focus on historical, legal, and testimonial details may seem frustratingly nonpartisan.  Nevertheless, it is instructive to know the legal and procedural differences that distinguish Trump’s impeachment from the proceedings brought against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton.  President Nixon, of course, wasn’t formally impeached, but the congressional proceedings that would have led to his impeachment and removal from office did set a standard that was largely followed during Clinton’s impeachment but abandoned by Speaker Pelosi’s party.

Lucas’s analysis doesn’t begin with the “impeachment investigations” headlined incongruously by Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.  Instead, it starts (after an historical preface) with dreams of impeachment conceived even before Trump’s inauguration and first presented as a resolution to the House of Representatives  in 2017 by the bomb-throwing Texas Democrat, Al Green.  Several chapters are then devoted to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s attempts to stave off what she feared would be a politically damaging focus on impeachment prior to the 2018 elections.  

After those elections, the radical shift of her party’s base, exemplified by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s crushing primary victory over an established New York congressman, meant that now Speaker Pelosi, as well as many establishment Democrats, might be forced to walk the impeachment plank or risk losing their positions of power to challengers of the Ocasio-Cortez stripe.  The pressure on Pelosi to impeach President Trump from this Squad-inspired base only increased after Mueller’s Russia collusion investigation came up empty but set a novel legal standard by declaring the President had “not been exonerated” of an obstruction of justice charge.  

Thus, after having previously set a “compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan” standard for impeachment, Pelosi ultimately opted (despite fearing she might lose her House majority in 2020) for an impeachment that was, in Lucas’s words, “uncompelling and underwhelming and extremely partisan.”  The principal action identified as an impeachable offense was a phone call between President Trump and the new Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky.  In that exchange, which covered several items, the President encouraged Zelensky to check on possible corruption involving a company (Burisma) that was being investigated when then Vice-President Joe Biden demanded the Ukrainian prosecutor be fired as a precondition for receiving American aid.  

Linked here is the actual non-verbatim transcript of that presidential call which Lucas analyzes in detail but doesn’t present in its entirety in one place.  And what follows is the transcribed Presidential statement that became the basis of weeks of impeachment furor in Congress:  “The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General (Barr) would be great.  Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”  

Rather than dismissing Democrat allegations of Presidential corruption out of hand, Lucas meticulously examines the evidence and testimony given in the Schiff and Nadler investigations to support the claim that Trump engaged in an “abuse of power” by asking Zelensky to investigate a situation that even Obama’s advisors had identified as an apparent conflict of interest for Biden.  All the major witnesses are identified in great detail and given a more-than-fair hearing -- at least as fair as the not-always-positive evaluations of the few witnesses allowed to defend the President.

A witness never heard during the impeachment proceedings, Hunter Biden, does have his financial dealings, both in China and Ukraine, scrutinized by Lucas.  Concerning Vice-President Biden’s ethical lecture to Ukraine about the allegedly corrupt prosecutor (Shokin) who must be fired, the New York Times provided this assessment in late 2015: “Sadly, the credibility of Mr. Biden’s message may be undermined by the association of his son with a Ukrainian natural-gas company, Burisma Holdings, which is owned by a former government official suspected of corrupt practices.”  The Gray Lady had a much different opinion of Biden’s intervention, of course, when Trump’s removal from office was at issue in 2019.  Lucas adds to the picture of possible corruption Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson, Christopher Heinz, as well as another dubious actor, Devon Archer, who partnered with Heinz and Hunter at Rosemont Capital during the Obama-Biden Administration.  The rather clear pattern of influence peddling that Biden and Kerry established vis-à-vis their relatives would have been an unwelcome addition to an impeachment case largely predicated on the thinnest of quid pro quo grounds.  

In brief, Lucas provides a complete impeachment scorecard that tracks witnesses, testimony, rules of engagement, and perceived hits and misses during both the investigations and the impeachment trial itself, a proceeding that scrupulously avoided revealing the identity of President Trump’s primary “abuse of power” accuser -- the “Whistleblower.” Perhaps the nadir of the supposedly solemn impeachment proceedings was reached when Schiff cited an unconfirmed news report that the White House had threatened to put the heads of GOP senators “on a pike” if they voted against the President – a vicious lie that alienated two Republican senators, Collins and Murkowski, whom Democrats hoped to sway to their side.  In the end, only Mitt Romney voted with all the Democrats, and only on the “abuse of power” charge.

“Abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress,” Lucas notes frequently, are noncriminal accusations so broad that any prior President could be brought up on the same charges by a hostile House of Representatives.  With respect to the latter charge Law Professor Jonathan Turley observed, “Basing impeachment on this obstruction theory would itself be an abuse of power -- by Congress. It would be an extremely dangerous precedent to set for future presidents and Congresses in making an appeal to the Judiciary into [a] ‘high crime and misdemeanor.’”

The one major element I felt was missing from Lucas’s evenhanded and thorough account of the impeachment investigations and Senate trial was any concerted effort to view those events in light of the (in my view) criminal activity initiated by the Obama Administration to spy on and destroy Trump’s presidential campaign and later to undermine his presidency.  Compared to this unprecedented and as yet unpunished contempt for representative government itself, all the accusations brought against President Trump by Schiff, Pelosi, and company don’t amount to a hill of beans -- or to a string of bad sausages.  

Richard Kirk is a freelance writer living in Southern California whose book Moral Illiteracy: "Who's to Say?"  is also available on Kindle   

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