As the House moves to drafting and voting on articles of impeachment regarding President Donald Trump’s actions demanding a “favor” from Ukraine, there are reports that it is also considering whether to include Trump’s actions responding to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. There is a strong case for doing so.
The president’s activities in both instances constitute the same kind of abuse of presidential powers. In the case of Ukraine: Trump engaged in an “operation to redirect our foreign policy to benefit Donald Trump’s personal and political interests, not the national interest. . . . [He asked Ukraine] to launch and publicly announce sham political investigations to discredit the unanimous conclusion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and into President Trump’s potential political rival in 2020.” Likewise, there is abundant evidence that Trump engaged in the same kind of abuses of power in responding to and obstructing the investigation of Russia’s attack on the 2016 election. The question before the House is whether, as he did in the case of Ukraine, Trump used government powers to benefit his personal and political interests, to the detriment of the national interest.
The challenge faced by the House in deciding whether to include Trump’s activities in connection with Russia is not whether there is sufficient evidence of abuse of power. Rather, the complicated details of the case, including the untold number of lies by Trump and his associates, coupled with process and public relations challenges, seem to be driving the reluctance to include Trump’s activities regarding Russia.
Here are some brief suggestions about dealing with those difficulties and why it is important to do so. First, the story of Trump’s reaction to Russia’s 2016 election interference can be boiled down in a short and comprehensible way, albeit by omitting many important lines of inquiry and wrong-doing on the part of the president. Here is one possibility. Russia mounted a significant attack on the 2016 election in order to sow division in the United States to further its long-term foreign policy goals to weaken the U.S. and its democratic allies. In doing so, it decided to help Trump. (Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted several Russians including government officials for this.)
Nevertheless, since being elected president, Trump has repeatedly and publicly denied that Russia interfered in the 2016 election; he has not sought to punish Russia for doing so or even attempted to deter the Kremlin from doing so again, for example, by issuing a strong condemnation. Instead, Trump has repeatedly attacked both the government agencies and individual career officials charged with investigating Russian interference and he has engaged in multiple actions, which made the investigation more difficult. His actions, detailed in Mueller’s findings raise serious questions about whether he has acted consistently with his oath to defend the Constitution, or instead has failed in his duty to defend the United States and abused presidential powers to protect his own personal interests at the expense of the U.S. national interest. (For more detail, see my July piece in Just Security.) Just Security’s Kate Brannen has also laid out a comprehensive, straightforward summary of Trump’s wrongdoings, detailing the many instances when Trump sought illegal election help from a foreign power.
Second, the House could move forward on Trump’s activities regarding Russia based almost entirely on facts that are either indisputable, e.g. Trump’s public statements, or strongly supported by the evidence found by Mueller and other investigations. While there are still many unknown facts about Trump’s activities regarding Russia — e.g., what exactly did he know about Russia’s and Wikileaks’ plans to release stolen emails during the 2016 campaign to try and affect the election, and some details of his myriad efforts as president to obstruct the investigation (lie under oath, dangle pardons) – there is already enough evidence for the House to proceed without further investigation.
The impeachment process would not be unduly complicated by adding Trump’s actions regarding Russia if the House focused on Trump’s actions that are common to both the Russia and Ukraine stories. In both cases, Trump repeatedly denied Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, failed to hold Russia accountable and tried to draw attention to a manufactured story that it was Ukraine, not Russia, who attacked the U.S. In both instances, Trump used the extraordinary powers of the presidency for his own personal and political interests, to the detriment of the U.S. national interest. In both cases, he used the same methods: repeatedly lying to the American people; using the White House to attempt to influence or even intimidate witnesses, and launching unprecedented personal attacks on the integrity of public servants and on public institutions.
Moreover, there are important reasons why the House should consider whether Trump’s activities re: Russia constitute additional grounds for impeachment.
First, Trump’s actions as president in denying Russian interference and instead obstructing the investigation into Russia’s attack add important context to understanding and judging the significance of his activities regarding Ukraine, especially in furthering the story peddled by Russia that Ukraine tried to influence the 2016 election. Viewed in this context, Trump’s actions regarding Ukraine look like part of an overall effort to protect Russia from consequences for its election interference and to deflect attention from the U.S. government investigation into Trump’s campaign’s activities.
Second, Trump’s actions on Russia are inconsistent with defenses being offered for his actions on Ukraine. Some of Trump’s defenders argue that withholding foreign aid is a legitimate act within the scope of the president’s power (though my colleague Sam Berger demonstrates that here it was not) and thus the crux of any wrongdoing depends on Trump’s intent: Was he acting for personal gain? A variant of this argument is that soliciting help from a foreign government for personal political gain is just not that bad, arguing that it is no worse for example, than Hunter Biden being paid for sitting on the board of Burisma. But, the defense that Trump was simply exercising “his office’s well-established powers” over foreign aid crumbles when examined from the perspective of Trump’s efforts since his election to fail to condemn Russia’s election interference, even deny it, and to use his presidential powers to try to shut down the investigations into those attacks. There is no plausible benign explanation for his activities when viewed all together.
Third, Congress has a responsibility to consider Trump’s actions in failing to respond to the attack by Russia, because that failure caused similar but likely much greater harm to U.S. national interests than even the hold-up in aid to Ukraine did. In both instances, Trump encouraged illegal foreign interference in U.S. elections in order to benefit himself. In both instances, he, in effect, invited foreign interference in the 2020 election. Russia, however, unlike Ukraine, harbors the malign intent and actual capability of carrying it out.
The House could consider these additional grounds for impeachment without significantly prolonging the inquiry and process now underway. There are fewer practical difficulties in assembling a case than would first appear. The Mueller report is finished. Like the Starr report in the Clinton case, it stands as evidence before the House. The House has already held hearings in the wake of that report and there are already multiple transcripts of witnesses testifying under oath, before the Senate Intelligence Committee for example. The House committees could write a second report outlining the charges and the evidence based only on what already exists in the record.
The most complicated question would probably be how best to present a public airing of the Russia evidence comparable to the hearings just concluded by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). The most straightforward course would be for members of the House, either in the Judiciary Committee or on the House floor, to present the findings of such a second report. The president’s defenders would have a chance to respond. If allowed by the Senate majority and deemed necessary, live witnesses could testify in any Senate trial accompanied by the introduction of documentary evidence. The narrative and practical difficulties could be minimized by concentrating on those facts regarding Trump’s response to Russia, which like the facts on Ukraine, are virtually incontestable.
In light of Russia’s election interference and the clear evidence that it is likely to do so again, it is hard to see how the House fulfills its constitutional responsibility by doing anything less than formally considering such additional impeachment charges.