Trump Must Go

President Donald Trump’s assault Wednesday on the government’s intelligence community provides yet another reason for his impeachment. Trump’s tirade of tweets berating the heads of U.S. intelligence agencies corrupts the intelligence process and undermines the security of the United States. In the words of one career CIA officer, the president poses an “existential danger to the nation.” His tweet storm gives “Aid and Comfort” to the enemies of the United States, which is one of the two definitions in the Constitution of treason, and treason is grounds for impeachment.

FBI Director Christopher Wray, CIA Director Gina Haspel, and Dan Coats, Director of National Intelligence, left to right.

The president’s ire was triggered by the annual congressional hearing on global security threats, a routine occurrence attended by heads of the nation’s intelligence agencies, who concluded with unanimity that Iran is complying with the international agreement to halt its nuclear weapons program, North Korea is not likely to abandon its nuclear program, the Islamic State is not defeated, and the president’s trade policies and “unilateralism” in international relations undermine America’s alliances. On every issue Trump tweeted the opposite, calling the intelligence chiefs “extremely passive and naive.” For the president black is white, and clearly all things connected to President Barack Obama — whose administration negotiated the Iran nuclear deal — are unacceptable. Trump rarely listens to intelligence briefings and is loathe to heed the advice of his briefers. But, he is eager to undermine public confidence in the intelligence agencies as providers of neutral information.

Trump continued to sow confusion Thursday, first saying in an exchange with reporters that the intelligence officials “were totally misquoted, and were totally — it was taken out of context…. They said it was fake news, which frankly did not surprise me.” Since the global assessment hearing was public and the analysis was played frequently on television news and reported in newspapers, even Trump realized calling what consumers of news saw and heard “fake news” was a bit too bizarre even for him. So, he quickly tweeted that he “just concluded a great meeting with my Intel team…. Hearing was mischaracterized by the media – and we are very much in agreement.” Trump probably hopes his shenanigans Thursday further undermines public confidence in the intelligence community.

Why would the president of the United States act as he does? Stupidity, perhaps, of which, in the case of Trump, there is a surfeit. No reasonably informed individual, by now, can doubt the president’s ignorance of world affairs (Trump is ignorant in countless other areas as well). He has provided numerous instances proving his lack of knowledge of international relations. But, ignorance is not an impeachable offense.

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, July 2018

Treason is, however. Trump’s actions bolster Russia while undermining the United States. Trump has accepted the assurances of Russian President Vladimir Putin — a former KGB thug — that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election against all evidence and the conclusions of American intelligence agencies. Trump has adopted policies — coddling North Korea, withdrawing from Syria, weakening the NATO alliance — that benefit Russia. He has weakened or refused to implement American sanctions against Russia for its aggressive actions towards its neighbors. 

Why has Trump acted this way? The report of special counsel Robert Mueller may shed light on this question, revealing the extent of Trump’s financial dealings with Russian mobsters and the Kremlin and evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians in 2016. But, the key issue is not why Trump acts in the interests of America’s global adversary; it is that he does. The reasons for the president’s treasonous behavior are unimportant; the fact of his treasonous behavior is what counts.

I am not ruling out that there are other grounds to sustain the president’s impeachment. His violation of the Constitution’s emoluments clause is significant, and his involvement with Russia during the 2016 presidential election may well trigger articles of impeachment accusing Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” The evidence for additional articles of impeachment could well be revealed during impeachment hearings held in the House of Representatives. But, the president’s treasonous behavior provides sufficient reason to start those hearings now.

President Bill Clinton

Democratic leaders in the House are reluctant to begin impeachment proceedings. This reluctance is reminiscent of the proverbial generals fighting the last war. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other prominent Democrats in the House are influenced unduly by the fiasco of the last impeachment of a president. When the Republican-dominated House impeached President Bill Clinton in 1998, many viewed it as an improper wielding of congressional power, and the president’s popularity soared. Democrats have learned the wrong lesson. Clinton’s behavior was reprehensible, but sexual impropriety is not an impeachable offense. Treason is, as is “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

On July 20, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia debated the remedy for a president who betrayed the public trust or undermined the rule of law. A king could be beheaded, a Prime Minister toppled during a parliamentary vote. But, what about an elected chief magistrate? Some thought the only recourse was the next election. The only mechanism available to the 55 men who drafted the Constitution was impeachment, a weapon that had been used for 400 years by the English Parliament to exert control over the king’s ministers. 

James Madison

Some suggested “malpractice or neglect of duty” would be grounds. But, others feared such vague terminology might allow Congress to impeach a president with whom it merely had policy differences. Eventually the delegates fixed on treason, bribery, and high crimes and misdemeanors, but not before James Madison of Virginia enumerated a list of impeachable offenses: “[The president] might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.” (Peculate means embezzle.)

In the end, Trump may prove guilty of many impeachable offenses. For now, he is certainly guilty of the third item on Madison’s list: He has betrayed the public trust to a foreign power. It is time for the House to begin proceedings.

As Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania said during the debate over removal of the president: “The people are the King.” Now is the time for the king’s representatives to act.

Posted February 1, 2019

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