For Republicans who are weary of trying to deny the obvious about Donald Trump and his attempt to force Ukraine’s president to give him ammunition against Joe Biden, there is another option. In Thursday’s hearing, Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, tried it out.
Trump’s conduct was “inappropriate,” “misguided” and “undermined our national security,” Hurd said. But, he suggested, this “bungling” did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense, much less a justification for removing a president.
Hurd didn’t develop this argument, but he managed to separate himself a bit from his belligerent see-no-evil Republican colleagues on the Intelligence Committee. He pointed to a middle way that would let GOP members denounce the sin while showing mercy to the sinner.
It might be called the Joe Lieberman option. In September 1998, as Bill Clinton’s possible impeachment loomed, the Connecticut Democrat took the Senate floor to castigate the president’s “disgraceful behavior” — having sex with a White House intern and then denying it.
“It is wrong and unacceptable and should be followed by some measure of public rebuke and accountability,” said Lieberman, alluding to the possibility of formally condemning Clinton. Many House Democrats favored censure as an alternative to impeachment, and the White House indicated the president could accept it. But when Republicans voted for impeachment, the option became moot.
After the past week’s hearings, there can be no serious doubt that Trump withheld U.S. military aid to try to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to help him smear Biden and the Democratic Party.
His own appointees, notably Ambassador Gordon Sondland, say it happened. White House aides and State Department personnel working on Ukraine provided confirmation. His acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney admitted it, before reversing himself. If the July 25 call record left any glimmer of doubt, the witnesses in the hearings extinguished it.
The case would be stronger if all the people with direct knowledge, including Trump, would answer questions under oath, as those who testified before the Intelligence Committee did. But what has come out so far is plenty damning. As Henry David Thoreau noted, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.”
It would not be outlandish for Republicans to simply acknowledge Trump’s offenses but still oppose his removal. One chief defense offered by Clinton’s lawyers was that any wrongdoing involved private misbehavior, not the “most serious public misconduct” for which impeachment was intended. It was an argument that many people who had thoroughly denounced Clinton’s conduct — including me — found persuasive.
His attorneys noted that when the House Judiciary Committee voted to impeach Richard Nixon, it drew a clear line between what qualified and what didn’t. It rejected an article addressing his apparent tax fraud. Why? Because the alleged crime had nothing to do with how Nixon carried out the duties of his office.
In 1998, the GOP-dominated House accepted the distinction. It voted down an article of impeachment concerning Clinton’s false testimony in a lawsuit unrelated to the Lewinsky affair.
Republicans would have a harder time mounting this defense, though, because Trump’s conduct involved the use of his presidential powers. As a group of 430 legal scholars cited by the Clinton lawyers noted, impeachment was intended for such things as “serious assaults on the integrity of the processes of government” and “malfeasance or abuse of office.” Trump’s malignant behavior seems to fit those categories.
Still, Republicans could argue that by itself, his Ukraine scandal should be addressed by a lesser punishment than impeachment and removal — namely, censure by Congress.
They could argue that a formal rebuke would be more appropriate because, after all, the public will have its say in less than a year. They could thus appeal to voters in the middle who object to Trump’s gangster-like methods but recoil at expelling him from the office to which he was elected.
But there is no indication that GOP members are willing to come to grips with the reality of what Trump did, much less hold him accountable. Will Hurd offered only the mildest criticism, without suggesting that Congress take any action at all against the president. And Hurd has more leeway than most, because he’s retiring from Congress.
In 1998, Democrats were unwilling to impeach their president, but there were limits to what they would defend. Today, Republicans have made it clear that when it comes to defending Trump, they have no limits.