When the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia considered the question of whether to allow the impeachment and removal of presidents while they are serving in office, William Richardson Davie warned: “If he be not impeachable whilst in office, he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.” Davie, a Revolutionary War hero and legal scholar, explained to his fellow delegates that the impeachment power should be “considered…as an essential security for the good behaviour of the Executive.”
Benjamin Franklin echoed this understanding with regard to an executive’s abusing the authority of his position for the purpose of “strengthening his own party, as the party opposed to him became formidable.” In other words, if there is reason to believe that a president might engage in lawless actions in order to secure his reelection, is is time to impeach.
The delegates were also explicit in describing specific actions that would necessitate the impeachment of a president. “He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression,” explained James Madison. “He might betray his trust to foreign powers.”
Now, in an interview with ABC News, Trump has announced that he is open to consulting with agents of foreign governments who approach him with damaging information about political opponents. “I think you might want to listen. There isn’t anything wrong with listening,” chirped Trump. “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it.”
ABC News Chief Anchor George Stephanopoulos gave Trump a chance to clarify, and the president did just that, making it absolutely clear that he is up for secret meetings with representatives of foreign governments proffering information on political rivals. And that he would not, necessarily, report these encounters to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“It’s not an interference, they have information—I think I’d take it,” said Trump. “If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI—if I thought there was something wrong. But when somebody comes up with oppo research, right, they come up with oppo research, ‘oh let’s call the FBI.’ The FBI doesn’t have enough agents to take care of it. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressman, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
Putting a fine point on things: The sitting president of the United States has said he would collude with a foreign power as part of an effort to get himself reelected. This is, as CNN notes, “a stark—if not entirely surprising—expression of nonchalance from the President over foreign efforts to influence US politics.” That, of course, gets us to the crux of the matter: If an agent of a foreign government has helped a president to secure reelection, that president might be appreciative enough to keep “listening” to suggestions regarding US foreign policy. In other words, “He might betray his trust to foreign powers.” CNN summed things up with a headline that read: “Trump throws open 2020 election to foreign spies.”
Trump will offer variations on this theme: walking some parts back, dialing some parts up. But no one should doubt that he will, as William Richardson Davie feared, “spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself re-elected.”
Trump is a desperate, lawless man in a position of immense power. The response to so conflicted and corrupted a presidency must, necessarily and appropriately, be a constitutional one.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a potential Trump rival in 2020, tweeted after the ABC interview, “The
#MuellerReport made it clear: A foreign government attacked our 2016 elections to support Trump, Trump welcomed that help, and Trump obstructed the investigation. Now, he said he’d do it all over again. It’s time to impeach Donald Trump.” Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, a longtime advocate of impeachment, declared, “When the President of the United States openly welcomes foreign help to win an election, he threatens the very core of our democracy. If we are to secure justice and ensure this never happens again, we must impeach him.” Warren and O’Rourke are not being extreme in making these calls. They are speaking the language of the founders of the American experiment.
This isn’t about the specific actions of Russia or China or any other country. This isn’t even about one or two comments from the president. This is about Donald Trump’s mindset. This is about the sitting president’s explicit statements regarding the use, and abuse, of his position for political purposes. The point of the impeachment power, well-established in the deliberations of the summer of 1787, is to prevent this abuse. That power should now be used to check and balance a president who has made it quite clear that he will spare no efforts or means whatever to get himself reelected.