Trump's high crimes: Why impeachment fever is catching on — and could stop a historically destructive president
Recently a friend who follows the news a bit less obsessively than I do said, “I thought George W. Bush was bad, but it seems like Donald Trump is even worse. What do you think?”
“Well,” I replied, “in terms of causing death and destruction, I suspect Bush still has the edge.” In fact, the U.S.-led forever wars begun under the Bush administration have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Afghanistan (almost half a million by one respected estimate). And those are only directly caused, violent deaths. Several times that many have reportedly died from hunger, illness, and infrastructure collapse.
Millions more have become refugees. The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) says that, worldwide, “[t]here are almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan. They comprise the largest protracted refugee population in Asia and the second largest refugee population in the world.” The numbers for Iraq are even higher. UNHCR reports that 3.3 million Iraqis were displaced by the various conflicts that followed the U.S. invasion of 2003 (though most of them remain in-country). Eleven million people, a quarter of the population, still need humanitarian aid.
Things are so bad that, since early October, Iraqis in Baghdad and some other cities have united across sectarian lines to risk death and injury in demonstrations demanding changes from the government. As Reuters explains it:
After decades of war against its neighbors, U.N. sanctions, two U.S. invasions, foreign occupation, and sectarian civil war, the defeat of the Islamic State insurgency in 2017 means Iraq is now at peace and free to trade for the first extended period since the 1970s. Oil output is at record levels. But infrastructure is decrepit and deteriorating, war-damaged cities have yet to be rebuilt, and armed groups still wield power on the streets.
So much for Operation Enduring Freedom. In terms of creating sheer human misery, George W. definitely has The Donald beat for now. But despite Trump’s frequently voiced desire “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” he may yet do more harm than his Republican predecessor.
At the very least, he deserves impeachment as much as Bush did.
Back in 2006, when Bush was president, a reader of the gay sex-advice columnist and podcaster Dan Savage suggested a campaign to “Impeach the Mother-Fucker Already.” ITMFA was the mock acronym—a play on Savage’s frequent advice to readers in bad relationships that they should DTMFA (the “D” being for “dump”). In response, Savage would have a bunch of ITMFA pins and buttons made and raise about $20,000, which he split between the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and two Democratic senatorial campaigns.
In 2017, Savage again took stock of the country’s situation. “I didn’t think I’d see a worse president than George W. Bush in my lifetime. But here we are,” he wrote. So he added a new line of T-shirts, hats, and mugs to the ITMFA store, and sales have allowed him to donate more than $250,000 to the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, and the International Refugee Assistance Project.
Of course, Savage wasn’t the only one already talking about impeachment in 2017. That June, Representatives Brad Sherman (D-CA) and Al Green (D-TX) actually presented an impeachment resolution on the House floor. Its single Article of Impeachment accused President Trump of using the power of his office to “hinder and cause the termination of” the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election by threatening and ultimately firing FBI Director James Comey. It also cited Trump’s efforts to get Comey to “curtail” an investigation into Lt. General Michael Flynn who had briefly served as the president’s national security advisor. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI about calls he made to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. soon after Trump’s election victory.
Since October 2017, Representative Green has repeatedly introduced a different set of Articles focused on the president’s obvious and vocal racism:
“In his capacity as President of the United States... Donald John Trump has with his statements done more than insult individuals and groups of Americans, he has harmed the society of the United States, brought shame and dishonor to the office of President of the United States, sowing discord among the people of the United States by associating the majesty and dignity of the presidency with causes rooted in white supremacy, bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, or neo-Nazism on one or more of the following occasions...”
The resolution goes on to list a number of Trump’s racist interventions, including calling some of the white supremacists and neo-Nazi protestors who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia (and one of whom murdered counter-demonstrator Heather Heyer by driving his car into a crowd), “very fine people”; sharing on social media anti-Muslim videos originally posted by Britain First, a minor English far-right party; attempting to prevent Muslims from entering the U.S. by executive order; attacking professional football players for taking a knee during the national anthem; accusing Puerto Ricans of throwing the U.S. “budget out of whack” in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma; and insulting Representative Frederica Wilson, an African American congresswoman, by calling her “wacky.”
The House has repeatedly rebuffed Green’s efforts, most recently in July 2019, when it voted 332-95 to table the measure, effectively killing it.
What a difference a couple of months can make.
Impeachment Fever Rising
As anyone who’s been paying attention knows, even with a 54% majority in the House of Representatives, the Democratic leadership has long resisted calls to impeach the president, while Speaker Nancy Pelosi did a masterful job restraining the party’s left wing. Whatever I thought of her position on impeachment then, I had to admire her consummate parliamentary skills. She happens to represent my congressional district, so I’ve been a Pelosi-watcher ever since I worked for her opponent in her first congressional primary in 1987.
Impeachment advocates had hoped this would change with the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Although the report did document numerous presidential efforts to obstruct the inquiry, the special counsel declined to speculate on the question of Trump’s guilt, arguing that Justice Department rulings prohibit the indictment of a sitting president. Nevertheless, in his first public statement, Mueller made it clear that his team’s work did not exonerate the president: “If we had had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.”
With their eyes on the 2020 election season, however, Democratic Party centrists continued to argue that, because Trump would inevitably survive a trial in the Republican-dominated Senate, impeachment was a futile exercise. Worse, it might well stir up the president’s base and so improve his chances of reelection.
That all changed this August with a whistleblower’s revelation that the president had used a July 25th telephone call to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. At the time, Trump had, without explanation, also frozen $391 million in U.S. military aid previously appropriated by Congress to help Ukraine resist separatists and their Russian allies fighting on its territory.
Under pressure, the White House released a two-page synopsis of the call, thinking that this would calm things down. It had the opposite effect. In that document, which is not quite a transcript and might not be complete, Zelensky, a comedian elected president after playing that very role in a popular TV series, told Trump that Ukraine was “almost ready to buy more Javelins [U.S. anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.”
Trump responded, “I would like you to do us a favor though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say Crowdstrike...” (The ellipsis, which may or may not represent missing material, marks the end of his sentence.) Trump was referring to a discredited conspiracy theory in which a supposedly missing Democratic National Committee computer server, hacked by Russia during election 2016 according to the Mueller investigation, ended up in Ukraine. (There is, in fact, no missing server, here or in Ukraine.)
Later, Trump asked Zelensky to look into a previous Ukrainian government’s ousting of prosecutor Viktor Shokin for corruption. Specifically, he wanted his counterpart to check out the theory that then-Vice President Joe Biden engineered Shokin’s dismissal to protect his son, Hunter, who then held a seat on the board of Burisma, a natural gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch that was under investigation. It seems clear that Shokin really was corrupt and that Joe Biden’s role in his ouster was unremarkable. (It seems equally clear, as Matthew Yglesias writes at Vox, that the younger Biden “had no apparent qualifications for the job,” which paid up to $50,000 a month, “except that his father was the vice president and involved in the Obama administration’s Ukraine policy.”
Finally, Donald Trump had done something bad enough—strong-arming a foreign leader into digging up dirt on a likely Democratic Party presidential candidate—to convince the House leadership to initiate impeachment proceedings. Trump had already openly called on Russia to release 33,000 supposedly missing Hillary Clinton emails during the 2016 election. He had now invited a second country to interfere in U.S. elections and then tripled down by publicly asking China to do the same. All of this should be enough to demonstrate that the president has violated his oath of office on multiple occasions. ITMFA.
High(er) Crimes and Misdemeanors
Extorting political favors is bad enough, but Donald J. Trump has done so much worse, even if his true highest crimes and misdemeanors aren’t ever likely to make it into the Articles of Impeachment finally sent to the Senate. These, to my mind, would include:
* Violating U.S. responsibilities toward refugees under international humanitarian law as defined in treaties and conventions this country long ago signed and ratified: In his behavior towards asylum-seekers and other migrants at our southern border, Trump, who began his 2015 election campaign by denouncing Mexicans as “drug dealers, criminals, and rapists,” has as president turned his back on decades of international consensus on the rights of refugees. He, of course, oversaw an administration that instituted a cruel policy of family separation of undocumented immigrants, causing thousands of children to be cut off from their parents. Healso allowed such children to be held for weeks in stinking, filthy cages near the U.S. border.
More recently, he has pursued “safe third country” deals with the very nations—El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico—that people are fleeing, in part, because of drug cartel violence and their governments’ inability, or unwillingness, to stop it. How can Mexico, for example, be a "safe" alternative for Salvadorans fleeing gang violence when its own citizens are seeking asylum in the United States for similar reasons?
He has also slashed to 18,000 the number of refugees allowed to enter the United States annually. (One hundred and ten thousand were accepted in Barack Obama’s final year as president.) He has, in other words, caused the country to turn its back on its international responsibilities, as well as on millions of human beings in desperate need of help around the world.
* Unlike other wealthy people elected president, Donald Trump refused from the outset to put his assets in a blind trust, arguing that “conflicts of interest laws simply do not apply to the president.” The purpose of such a trust is to prevent officials from knowing whether actions they take will result in personal financial benefit. Instead, Trump retained ownership of all his assets through a revocable trust, run for his sole benefit by his own children, and about which he receives regular updates.
The Constitution’s “emoluments” clause prohibits federal office-holders from accepting “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” Nevertheless, Trump has continued to benefit personally from money spent by foreign governments at his hotels (and golf clubs), especially his still relatively new Trump International Hotel a few blocks from the White House.
And it’s not only foreign diplomats, domestic lobbyists, and the like who have felt obliged to patronize such Trump properties. On a recent visit to Ireland, Vice President Mike Pence chose to stay at the president’s Doonbeg hotel and golf club, a distant 181 miles from Dublin where his meetings were being held. But there was no presidential pressure involved, as Pence’s Chief of Staff Marc Short assured reporters: “I don’t think it was a request, like a command. I think that it was a suggestion.” (It’s always possible, of course, that a presidential suggestion carries more weight than your average TripAdvisor review.) The New York Times reports that Pence’s Great America Committee PAC has spent more than $225,000 at the Trump International Hotel, among other Trump properties, since 2017.
Not to be outdone by mere elected officials, the U.S. Air Force has acknowledged that it has lodged airplane crews at Trump’s Turnberry resort in Scotland at least 40 times since 2015, most of them since he was elected, at a cost of more than $184,000.
And undoubtedly such examples just scratch the surface of what a president who happens to be an international real-estate developer can rake in when he puts his mind to it.
* He has caused this country to unilaterally violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, an agreement that successfully confined Iran’s nuclear development to serving its domestic energy needs: In May 2018, the president rashly pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal that the Obama administration had successfully negotiated. This move has not only induced Iran to begin violating the terms of the agreement, but has destabilized the balance of power in the Middle East, leading to tit-for-tat vessel seizures and further inflaming relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia in dangerous ways. In September, for example, the Trump administration blamed Iran for a drone and missile attack that seriously damaged two key installations where much of the Saudi’s oil is refined.
* His dishonest, vicious, and racially charged rhetoric has cheapened political discourse in this country and is helping to hollow out our democracy: Free conversation about political issues, including sharp disagreements, is essential to a democratic society. But such conversations are only possible when the people involved can assume that everyone will make a good faith effort to tell the truth as they see it, to argue honestly, and to respect each other’s right to participate in the conversation. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas has called this approach “discourse ethics” and it should be at the very heart of democratic life.
Trump, of course, is a specialist in telling lies (more than 12,000 of them during his presidency so far, according to the count of the Washington Post). When the head of a democratic nation routinely treats lying as if it were a kind of truth telling in disguise, it changes the rules of political conversation. How can you argue with someone who “trumps” you not with logic, but with “alternative facts”?
Add to that the president’s constant use of insults, especially racially charged ones, to rule some participants out of the conversation altogether. He typically employs adhesive nicknames to “prove” (without evidence) claims about his opponents’ failings (“Crooked Hillary [Clinton],” “Shifty [Adam] Schiff”). Many of his ugliest insults are directed at women of color, calling African American congresswoman Maxine Waters “crazy” with an “extraordinarily low IQ,” for example. Perhaps most famously, he tweeted that four progressive Democrats (and women of color) known as “The Squad” should “go back” to where they came from:
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”
Of course, the four (New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar, Massachusetts’s Ayanna Pressley, and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib) are, in fact, part of “our government.” They are members of Congress. And by “countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe” Trump must have meant the United States, because that’s where three of them were born. The fourth, Ilhan Omar, was born in Somalia and is a naturalized U.S. citizen.
Remembering Robert Drinan
Thinking about Trump’s impending impeachment reminds me of one of my heroes, Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest and congressman from Massachusetts in the Nixon years. He was the first in Congress to call for the president’s impeachment—not for the coverup of what the White House called "a third-rate burglary" of Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, but for what he considered a much worse crime: the multi-year secret carpet-bombing of Cambodia.
That bombing campaign had begun under President Lyndon Johnson, but it expanded in a staggering way in the Nixon years. According to Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program, the U.S. flew more than 231,000 sorties over 115,000 sites, dumping “half a million or more tons of munitions” on that country. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger memorably relayed President Nixon’s orders on the subject to General Alexander Haig: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves.”
Drinan asked his colleagues in Congress, "Can we impeach a president for concealing a burglary but not for concealing a massive bombing?" Their answer was that they could, although Nixon resigned before the House could vote on its articles of impeachment.
I’m reminded of Robert Drinan now, because once again we’re threatening to impeach a president, this time for a third-rate attempt to extort minor political gain from the government of a vulnerable country (without even the decency of a cover-up). But we’re ignoring Trump’s highest crime, worse even than the ones mentioned above.
He has promised to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, the 2015 international agreement that was meant to begin a serious international response to the climate crisis now heating the planet. Meanwhile, he’s created an administration that is working in every way imaginable to ensure that yet more greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. He is, in other words, a threat not just to the American people, or to the rule of law, but to the whole human species.
And for that he richly deserves to be impeached and convicted.
Rebecca Gordon is the author of the new book American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and previously, Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. She teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras collective. You can contact her through the Mainstreaming Torture website.