Trump Has Committed an Impeachable Offense. A More Important Question Looms.

President Donald J. Trump stops to talk to reporters and members of the media as he walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One to depart from the South Lawn at the White House.
President Donald J. Trump stops to talk to reporters and members of the media as he walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One to depart from the South Lawn at the White House. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post via Getty Im

Was there a quid pro quo? According to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, the answer is yes.

The evidence presented during the two-week public phase of the impeachment inquiry makes a strong case that President Donald Trump demanded that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky make a public announcement about investigations into Trump’s political rivals in exchange for releasing military aid and a White House meeting.

Sondland was on an “domestic political errand,” in the words of Fiona Hill, a Russia expert on Trump’s own National Security Council. According to her testimony, Sondland was working for months with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani and others to obtain the announcement before releasing almost $400 million in aid to help Ukraine repel Russian occupation of its eastern region. While Sondland admitted that Trump did not explicitly tell him that the announcement of investigations was linked to the aid and the White House meeting, Sondland assumed the connection because “two plus two equals four.” Trump had repeatedly told Sondland to “work with Rudy,” who made no secret of his quest to persuade Ukraine to investigate a debunked conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election and Burisma, the energy company on whose board Joe Biden’s son once sat.

In addition to Sondland’s testimony, other evidence supports the conclusion that the two were linked, including Trump’s own July 25 phone call with Zelensky, in which Zelensky inquired about the aid.  Trump’s response? “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” Trump said, and then proceeded to urge Zelensky to work with Giuliani to investigate the 2016 election and Biden.

In the American criminal-justice system, when a prosecutor is confronted with facts about serious misconduct, his first task is to determine whether a crime was committed. But that decision does not complete his work. His next, and more challenging, step is to ask whether criminal charges should be filed. Similarly, in the impeachment context, asking whether a high crime or misdemeanor has been committed is only the first step. Members of the House of Representatives must next ask themselves whether filing articles of impeachment are in the best interest of the country.

Following the two weeks of hearings, it seems apparent that an impeachable offense has been committed. Bribery, specifically mentioned in the Constitution as a basis for impeachment, occurs when a public official demands a thing of value in exchange for the performance of an official act. This type of trade is sometimes referred to as a quid pro quo, or “this for that.”

Here, Trump demanded an announcement about investigations of his political rivals in exchange for performing an official act by releasing the military aid and hosting Zelensky at the White House, a visit the Ukrainian president wanted to help signal to Russia that he had the support of the United States. The answer to the first question in a charging decision, whether a high crime has been committed, as Sondland said, is yes.

So, rather than continuing to ask whether there was a quid pro quo, we need to ask the more important and more difficult question: what should we do about it?

Congress should be focused, then, on whether articles of impeachment should be filed. When a prosecutor makes this decision, she considers whether a substantial federal interest would be advanced by filing charges. Among the factors that are considered are the need for deterrence and the collateral consequences that charges would have.

In this instance, deterrence is important. If Trump is permitted to commit bribery of a foreign ally, then future presidents will not be deterred from engaging in similar behavior. The bar for presidential conduct will forever be lowered.

In addition, the nature of this particular misconduct also requires deterrence. Trump’s crime was not simply unjust enrichment, but far more serious violations of his duty to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. By encouraging Ukraine to announce an investigation of Biden, Trump sought foreign influence into our democratic elections. By withholding military aid that Congress had deemed to be in the best interests of not only Ukraine, but also the United States, Trump compromised our national security. And by attaching personal favors to military aid, Trump denigrated the reputation for integrity of the United States among our allies as a force against corruption.

On the other hand, impeachment would bring harmful collateral consequences to our country. Impeachment would mean a public trial in the Senate. Conducting a trial would occupy time and other resources that could otherwise be used to address significant problems like health care, gun violence and infrastructure. An impeachment trial would further divide Americans, making us more vulnerable to foreign and domestic attacks. In addition, airing our nation’s dirty laundry in public would undermine our position on the world stage, tending to harm our reputation with foreign governments. And, of course, impeachment could have consequences on the upcoming election, and those are hard to forecast.

The consequences of impeaching Trump are significant, and so are the consequences of declining to impeach. This is the question that now deserves a sober, serious conversation.

What Should We Do About Trump’s Quid Pro Quo?