WASHINGTON - Now we have it: The reasons House Democrats will give to their fellow House lawmakers, to senators conducting a trial and to the history books for President Donald Trump being unfit for office. They are giving two specific reasons, in the form of articles of impeachment unveiled Tuesday: abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
Let's break them down.
1. Abuse of power
What it means: That Trump used the power of the presidency for his own benefit. Specifically the allegation that he leveraged the State Department, the White House budget office, his unique ability to conduct high-level diplomacy and taxpayer dollars to pressure Ukraine to announce political investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory that Democrats and Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, downplaying Russia’s broad involvement.
What Democrats said about it: “It is an impeachable offense for the president to exercise the power of his public office to obtain an improper personal benefit, while ignoring or injuring the national interest,” said House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Tuesday announcing these articles. “That is exactly what President Trump did when he solicited and pressured Ukraine to interfere in our 2020 presidential election, thus damaging our national security, undermining the integrity of the next election and violating his oath of office to the American people.”
Historical context: Abuse of power was an article of impeachment written against the other two modern-day presidents who were under threat of impeachment or were actually impeached, Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. But while Nixon seemed likely to get impeached on this charge before he resigned, the House actually voted down the abuse-of-power allegation against Clinton, said Robert David Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College, in an email to The Fix.
Andrew Johnson was accused of being unfaithful to his oath of office, but he was impeached on a very narrow allegation that he violated a specific law, the Tenure of Office Act.
"Both the Nixon and the Clinton articles framed themselves with broad themes rather than specifics of the allegations whenever possible," Robert David Johnson said. "The House Democrats now seem inclined to take a similar approach."
Likelihood of getting Republican support, particularly in a Senate trial: This is a broad article of impeachment that attempts to encompass the entirety of the allegations against Trump regarding Ukraine. It would be easier to see Republicans who might defect from Trump (if there are any) do so on a narrower impeachment article.
2. Obstruction of Congress
What it means: That Trump blocked Congress’s investigation into his alleged wrongdoing. A few weeks into the impeachment inquiry, the White House said it wouldn’t cooperate with the inquiry. It banned key players from testifying - most notably acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and former national security adviser John Bolton - and others such as Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, from providing documents. Every Trump administration official who testified did so in violation of the ban.
What Democrats are saying about this: “The evidence is every bit as strong that President Trump obstructed Congress fully and without precedent and without basis in law,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., on Tuesday. “If allowed to stand, it would decimate Congress’s ability to conduct oversight of this president or any other in the future, leaving this president or those who follow free to be as corrupt and malfeasant and incompetent as they would like with no accountability.”
Historical context: Both Nixon and Clinton were accused of obstructing investigations. In the Nixon article, the Judiciary Committee cited four times that the Nixon administration “willfully disobeyed” subpoenas.
But obstruction of Congress is different from obstruction of justice, said Sarah Burns, a constitutional law expert at Rochester Institute of Technology who studies impeachment, in an email to The Fix. No president has been specifically and only accused of obstructing Congress. (In Nixon's case, they lumped them together, and Clinton was accused of obstructing a sexual harassment lawsuit against him in the courts.)
So it's new and notable that Congress is accusing Trump directly of blocking it from doing its job. "It seems like a big assertion of congressional power and specifically the power of Congress to investigate the executive," she said. "That would be bold, in a way we don't tend to see from Congress - which tends to snipe at the executive from the sidelines and then ask in exasperation what could they do to stop him."
Likelihood of getting Republican support, particularly in a Senate trial: On the one hand, Congress has a vested interest in standing up for itself. Subpoenas are one of the strongest tools Congress has to compel witnesses to testify. There’s a slippery-slope argument here: What happens if Republicans control Congress and they want to investigate a Democratic president, who uses Trump’s blockade against Congress as precedent?
But it's also hard to see Republicans rebuke Trump this seriously, given how much loyalty he's commanded from elected officials in his party. "I doubt there is much that will garner bipartisan support," Burns said. "Republicans have made their peace with Trump, and they seem to be standing by their man."
3. Also noteworthy was what wasn’t in the articles - the Mueller report and other allegations against Trump
After some debate, Democrats decided to keep the articles of impeachment against Trump narrowly focused on his work in Ukraine, despite the fact that a majority of House Democrats supported an impeachment inquiry after the report by then-special counsel Robert Mueller, released in the spring, accused Trump's campaign of welcoming Russia's help and then Trump of trying to undermine the ensuing investigation.
That's consistent with past impeachments, said the historians we talked to. Especially in Nixon's case, Congress debated folding in some of his foreign policy blunders but decided not to.
4. What Trump is saying
He tweeted this on Tuesday morning before House Democrats' announcement: "To Impeach a President who has proven through results, including producing perhaps the strongest economy in our country's history, to have one of the most successful presidencies ever, and most importantly, who has done NOTHING wrong, is sheer Political Madness!"
After the announcement, he proclaimed: “WITCH HUNT>”