Sunday, September 29, 2019

Two fundamental issues underlying impeachment 2020

Where are we, the nation, and how did we get here? Historians will offer up distal causes and historical antecedents but a few observations about proximal events will suffice.

First, a whistleblower complaint documents how Trump, in a telephone call, asked for assistance from the president of Ukraine in digging up dirt on a political opponent, and contemporaneously, Trump was withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in Ukrainian military aid. That documentation is consistent with the transcript provided by Trump himself. Second, the documentation of that telephone call, was moved to a secure server, indicating an attempted coverup to “lock” it away from view, and implying that other members of the administration knew the damning nature of that material. Third, the solicitation of a foreign power to intervene in the 2020 election triggered an impeachment inquiry. Fourth, Trump’s lawyers are asserting that a sitting president cannot be investigated for criminal acts.

All that raises two fundamental constitutional issues debated by the founders at the Constitutional Convention 232 years ago. The abuse of power, is one, evidenced by the solicitation of a foreign country to intervene in our election. As Alexander Hamilton put it, one of the high crimes meriting impeachment was giving in to “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils”. The other is the functional assertion by this president that he is above the law. “Shall any man be above justice?” asked George Mason, rhetorically, but critically. The founders, having just fought a war against a monarch, had good reason to be so suspicious of those claiming such immunity.

Following are excerpts from various observers related to these events and issues. At the very end, I have some concluding observations.

Here is the full, unclassified whistleblower complaint detailing Donald Trump’s illegal behavior from Jen Hayden of the Daily Kos Staff.

The full whistleblower complaint has been unclassified and publicly released ahead of Acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire’s appearance before the House Intelligence Committee.

You can read the entire complaint [linked in Hayden’s report], which is packed with explosive information, including the allegation the White House removed the call transcripts/notes from official records and placed it on a secret, previously unknown server.

Steve Coll in the New Yorker comments on maintaining The Integrity of the Trump Impeachment Inquiry. A clear and detailed whistle-blower complaint may help defend the process against the torrent of spin and lies that the President and his allies will surely continue to issue.

Two bombshell documents made public this [last] week—a record of a telephone conversation between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s President, and a whistle-blower’s complaint about that call—fully justify House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision, announced on Tuesday, to open an official impeachment inquiry. The documents describe a breach of Trump’s constitutional duties that is exceptional even in light of his record to date. During the telephone call, made on July 25th, he leveraged the vast disparity of wealth and power in the alliance between the United States and Ukraine to ask Zelensky to, in effect, aid his reĆ«lection bid. The complaint, filed on August 12th, by a person whom the Times has described as an intelligence officer, further recounts how U.S. national-security and foreign-policy officials who worked on issues concerning Ukraine became entangled in Trump’s scheme, and how this distorted and undermined their work on behalf of American interests. According to the complaint, once it became clear how damaging the record of the call might be, Administration officials participated in a coverup, moving the memorandum of conversation—the contemporaneous documentation of the call—to a highly restricted computer system not intended for such materials.

The whistle-blower’s complaint is one of the great artifacts to enter Washington’s sizable archive of political malfeasance. In the second paragraph, its author distills Trump’s offense with bracing clarity: “I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.” The author goes on to provide a revelatory narrative about the underlying facts of the case, one that complements investigative reporting previously published by the Washington Post, the Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and other outlets.

The complaint’s lucidity and detail may help House investigators defend the integrity of their inquiry against the torrent of spin and lies that will surely continue to issue from Trump and his allies. When Washington scandals involving foreign affairs become politically contested, a timeworn tactic by those accused of wrongdoing is to befuddle the public; the unfamiliar names, tangled chronologies, and ambiguous meetings offer a way to distract non-obsessives from the heart of the matter. Already, Trump and Giuliani, on Twitter and Fox News, have fogged the record by repeating falsehoods and conspiracy theories. The story we can discern so far, however, retains a certain straightforwardness, thanks to Trump’s lack of subtlety.

During the summer of 1787, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, delegates designed impeachment as a political process entrusted to Congress. The record of their debate shows they hoped that Presidents who were merely incompetent would be thrown out of office at election time, by the voters. Yet they also assumed that, occasionally, Presidents might be so corrupt and so ruthless that it would be damaging to the republic to wait for the next election. William Davie, a delegate from North Carolina, raised an alarming scenario: if a rogue with no conscience gained the Presidency, he might “spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself reĆ«lected.” In 1972, Richard Nixon proved his point. So, now, has Donald Trump.

The next set of excerpts are reports about ongoing litigation in Manhattan regarding release of Trump’s financial information, specifically his tax returns. This reporting is relevant to the larger issues I led with, because, by generalization, his lawyers are “saying that not only are criminal charges against a president unconstitutional, so are investigations.” Thus they are asserting that Trump cannot be investigated let alone indicted and hence he is above the law.

Trump Lawyers Argue He Cannot Be Criminally Investigated, reports Michel Gold at the NY Times. The president’s legal team is trying to block a subpoena seeking his tax returns, claiming that any criminal investigation of Mr. Trump is unconstitutional.

Lawyers for President Trump argued in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that he could not be criminally investigated while in office, as they sought to block a subpoena from state prosecutors in Manhattan demanding eight years of his tax returns.

Taking a broad position that the lawyers acknowledged had not been tested, the president’s legal team argued in the complaint that the Constitution effectively makes sitting presidents immune from all criminal inquiries until they leave the White House.

Presidents, they asserted, have such enormous responsibility and play a unique role in government that they cannot be subject to the burden of investigations, especially from local prosecutors who may use the criminal process for political gain.

In their lawsuit, Mr. Trump’s lawyers took their arguments a step further, saying that not only are criminal charges against a president unconstitutional, so are investigations. They took particular issue with any investigation conducted by “a county prosecutor,” such as the Manhattan district attorney.

UPDATE: Times reporters Bennjamin Weiser and William K. Rashbaum report that the Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. responded to Trump’s lawyers: Trump Is Accused of Inventing Tax Return ‘Privilege’ to Block Subpoena. The Manhattan district attorney’s office responded to arguments from the president’s lawyers over a subpoena for eight years of his tax returns.

Mr. President, a Few Questions are posed by Nicholas Kristof.

“Shall any man be above justice?” George Mason asked in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention. “Above all, shall that man be above it, who can commit the most extensive injustice?”

That was a central question for the framers of the Constitution — to what extent should impeachment be a check on a president? — and it’s the central question for our political system today.

President Trump’s bullying of Ukraine to target Joe Biden is parallel to the kinds of abuse that the framers discussed when they adopted the impeachment clause. What they fretted about was a leader who abused power — by colluding with a foreign country, James Madison suggested — and threatened the integrity of our system.

In the end, Mitch McConnell may not even permit a Senate trial after an impeachment. Or if McConnell convenes a trial, he could immediately have the Republican majority vote to dismiss the case.

That makes it all the more important that the House impeachment inquiry meticulously gather information by a process that — to the extent possible in our polarized age — is perceived by the public as fair, deliberate and legitimate. The backdrop must be the question that George Mason properly posed more than two centuries ago: “Shall any man be above justice?”

What drives Donald Trump? Greed, and greed alone, asked and answered by Catherine Rampell, columnist at the Washington Post.

There’s a common thread that stretches forward from Donald Trump’s financial scandals of the 1980s to his damning phone call with the president of Ukraine.

It’s the self-dealing.

Wherever he was, whatever his title, the president has used the powers at his disposal to enrich or otherwise benefit himself, regardless of what law, fiduciary duty or oath of office bound him to do.

Impeachment Battle to Turn for First Time on a President’s Ties to a Foreign Country reports Peter Baker at the NY Times as he traces the history of impeachments.

Alexander Hamilton, as usual, got right to the heart of the matter. When the framers were designing the Constitution and its power of impeachment, one of the high crimes they had in mind was giving into what Hamilton called “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”

For the authors of the country’s charter, there were few bigger threats than a president corruptly tied to forces from overseas. And so as the House opened an impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine this past week, the debate quickly focused on one of the oldest issues in America’s democratic experiment.

Shortly after the latest revelations about Mr. Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, Senator Christopher Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, denounced what he called “the president’s corrupt efforts to press a foreign nation into the service of his re-election campaign.”

“To use America’s global credibility as a casino token, to be cashed in for personal political gain,” he added, “is an intolerable abuse of power and totally anathema to the rule of law.”

A mere 232 years later, Congress and the country will now again confront the question of where the line sits between national interests and personal political interests.

So at the end of the impeachment process, what shall we expect? Getting rid of Trump is warranted and long overdue; I firmly believe that Trump is “so corrupt and so ruthless that it would be damaging to the republic to wait for the next election.” But my focus is on those enduring, fundamental issues. What steps can we take to prevent a high ranking official, president or otherwise, colluding with a foreign entity to corrupt our next election? What steps can we take to prevent the next president from using the levers of power to benefit that president’s financial and/or political interests? Lastly, we need to instill an understanding in our political leaders that not one of them, no matter how high the office, is above the law. This, to my mind, was the single most important topic of debate by the founders. Now, 232 years later, the lack of that shared understanding is the source of everything I posted today.

(Roving Reporter Sherry’s tips prompted inclusion of some of these excerpts.)

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