Trump's Ukraine Call May Not Be Impeachable, but It Sure Looks Like an Abuse of Presidential Power

Trump used the power of the presidency for personal political gain.


The Democrats' latest drive to impeachment rests on a single, relatively straightforward accusation: that in a July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, President Donald Trump improperly urged the foreign leader to investigate Trump's domestic political rival, Joe Biden, and Biden's family—perhaps holding up foreign aid in an attempt to pressure a foreign government into creating a scandal in hopes of gaining a political advantage in advance of the 2020 election.

It increasingly appears that this allegation is true. 

For starters, we know that Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, pressured Ukraine to investigate the Biden family, because Giuliani—shortly after denying the charge—admitted to doing so on national television.  

The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, reported that in the July call, Trump himself pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate the Biden family's dealings in the country, raising the issue eight separate times. 

Over the weekend, Trump appeared to admit he had raised the issue, linking the conversation, which he says was about "corruption," to Biden and his son, saying, "The conversation I had was largely congratulatory, was largely corruption, all of the corruption taking place, was largely the fact that we don't want our people, like Vice President Biden and his son, creating to the corruption already in the Ukraine."

Trump further insisted that "there was no quid pro quo, there was nothing." But this morning, The Washington Post reported that nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine had been withheld just days before the call occurred. Trump had personally ordered his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, to hold up the funds. 

This, in turn, raises two questions: Why would Trump put a hold on the funds? And did he have the authority to do so? 

The money had been authorized by Congress earlier in the year, and under the Constitution, Congress has the sole power of the purse. This is why the Obama administration's decision to spend Obamacare funds that Congress had not authorized was illegal. A president can neither spend unauthorized funds, nor decline to spend funds that Congress has authorized. 

Yet Trump not only paused the payments, but he gave no clear reason why, instructing administration officials "to tell lawmakers that the delays were part of an 'interagency process' but to give them no additional information," according to the Post. The payments weren't made until mid-September. 

So Trump personally pressured a foreign government to work with his personal lawyer to gin up what he hoped would be a politically beneficial scandal. Simply making that request, with no strings attached, would be inappropriate. But shortly before that, he personally held up federal funds that were set to go to that country—possibly in violation of the Constitution—and told his subordinates not to explain why. 

Zelensky, however, appears to have understood the reason. Sen. Chris Murphy (D–Conn.) said this week that in an early September conversation, Zelensky expressed direct concerns that "the aid that was being cut off to Ukraine by the president was a consequence" of his refusal to investigate the Bidens. 

One might be skeptical of Murphy's story. He is, after all, a Democratic senator. But I am inclined to believe him, for two reasons. First, if it were not true, Zelensky could publicly dispute it. And second, it's simply not surprising that Zelensky would understand the funding delay to be tied to Trump's request for an investigation into the Bidens; when the president of the United States calls a foreign leader and asks for a personal favor at precisely the same time that funding for that leader's country has been put on hold, the obvious conclusion would be that the two events are linked.  

So no, there may not have been an explicit quid pro quo. Trump may not have expressly said the disbursement of the funds was conditioned on the launch of a Ukrainian investigation into the Bidens. But even if there was no explicit threat, there was still presidential pressure coming at a time when money was on the line—and when Trump had personally delayed the funds.

This paints a disturbing picture. It very much looks like Trump used the power of his office—the most powerful political office in the country and the world—in an attempt to boost his personal political fortunes. The evidence so far, in other words, suggests that Trump did the thing he is being accused of doing, or something very much like it. 

There may still be more we don't know. The whistleblower complaint that launched this story has not yet been made public, and it appears to have been based on indirect information rather than firsthand knowledge. Trump has said that the transcript of the call would show no quid pro quo; we have not yet seen the transcript. It would be useful to have all of this information on the record. 

But we already know enough to draw some tentative conclusions. And presuming the events unfolded roughly as has been reported so far, then Trump has done something that no president should do. 

Indeed, if the reports are accurate, he attempted to do something that he spent the last three years insisting he didn't do in 2016—work directly (one might even say "collude") with a foreign government to influence an American election to his own benefit. And he did it from the perch of elected office. This was, by all indications, an abuse of presidential power for personal gain. 

Whether this constitutes an impeachable offense is a question that House Democrats will now have to decide. It is worth remembering, however, that impeachment is not necessarily a conclusion; it is a process, the vehicle set forth by the Constitution for determining whether a president has committed acts that might justify removal from office. And those acts do not necessarily have to be criminal in nature. As Rep. Justin Amash (I–Mich) tweeted earlier this year in a thread making the case that the Mueller report justified action, "Impeachment, which is a special form of indictment, does not even require probable cause that a crime (e.g., obstruction of justice) has been committed; it simply requires a finding that an official has engaged in careless, abusive, corrupt, or otherwise dishonorable conduct." Judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst who has sometimes tangled with Trump, recently made the case that Trump's attempts to influence Ukraine constitute an "act of corruption" worse than anything uncovered during the Mueller investigation. 

Impeachment proceedings would almost certainly drown out discussion of other issues. There is a risk impeachment could backfire politically, which is probably why Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) has resisted it so far. Democrats, many of whom have been itching to impeach since Trump took office, run a real risk of looking like they have merely latched onto the latest controversy in order to justify a partisan action they already wanted to pursue. And should the process result in an impeachment trial, it would be held on Trump-friendly turf, in the GOP-controlled Senate. It's hard to imagine that the final result would be his removal. 

All of which is to say that the question of impeachment is, unavoidably, a political question, and it will be resolved by political actors based on political considerations. But the question of what Trump did, and whether it was appropriate, is one that we can answer with reasonable confidence. And the answer does not make Trump look good.