In the past four days alone, two new items were added to President Trump’s list of impeachable offenses. He was already a sitting duck for a charge of obstruction of justice, which as an impeachable offense doesn’t require the standard of proof—intent—that a criminal charge does. He was also already vulnerable to a charge of accepting foreign emoluments—at the least for the profits his hotel just down Pennsylvania Avenue has been raking in from foreign governments, but also for some questionable business dealings by his sons in foreign countries and for flagrant ethics violations stemming from his refusal to detach himself from his private business interests. (Shortly before Trump took office, his “ethics lawyer,” in Trump’s presence, announced that his private company, now to be run by his sons, “will not enter into any new overseas deals while Trump is president.” This was the press conference that featured stacks of empty envelopes piled on a table.)
And now Trump has chalked up two more reasons to impeach him (or some kind of reckoning): abusing his office by ordering an investigation of the FBI’s investigation into whether his 2016 campaign conspired with Russia, and attempting to punish a specific individual by damaging that person’s business.
The actual likelihood of impeachment isn’t the important point. What matters is whether Trump—or any president—is held to account for alleged transgressions in gaining office, and then, once in it, abuse of its powers. If Trump gets away with these things unscathed, dangerous precedents will have been set.
First, there was his order this week to the Justice Department that it investigate whether the FBI had “infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign; second, the president was found to have been pressuring the postmaster general to punish Jeff Bezos—owner of The Washington Post, whose coverage of Trump galls him, and who also heads the giant commerce and services company Amazon—by significantly raising postal rates on Amazon’s packages. This would damage other companies that ship goods as well, thus affecting a major and growing part of the economy to the tune of billions of dollars, but Trump’s tweets and statements make it clear that his target is one person, Bezos.
In demanding on Monday of this week that the Justice Department turn over highly sensitive, even classified, information to his rampant Republican congressional allies, Trump is interfering with a law enforcement investigation of himself—a clear abuse of power. (This action can also come under a charge of obstruction of justice. Some of the charges against Richard Nixon also did double duty in articles of impeachment.) In fact, Trump’s interference with the federal investigation of himself makes Nixon look like a pussy-cat, but then, unlike Trump, Nixon didn’t have a Congress controlled by his own party to protect him. Trump is clearly colluding with some right-wing House Republicans to mess with the Justice Department, and to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe and build a case for removing him—even to the point of encouraging the outing of the name of an informant who has helped in previous FBI investigations.
The combined power of Trump and the Republican Congress could shut Mueller’s investigation down. They’ve obviously been trying, with some success, to set up key Justice Department officials by establishing pretexts for firing them or forcing them to resign. Their immediate target now is deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, the one person standing in the way of Trump ridding himself of Mueller. Rosenstein’s incrementally yielding to his congressional tormentors’ demands for information about an ongoing federal investigation—hitherto absolutely off-limits—may be for the purpose of buying time for Mueller to continue his so-far productive inquiry, which keeps turning up new questionable behavior. But so far Trump has been dissuaded from inviting the uproar that would follow his causing the firing of Mueller.
But meanwhile worrisome precedents are being set. Trump’s ordering the Justice Department to cooperate with certain lawmakers’ demands for information goes against an established tradition that the president must not interfere with Justice Department investigations. If Trump succeeds in killing Mueller’s investigation there’d still be the separate one led by the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, but it is on different subjects. So we’re fast approaching—if we’re not already in—a constitutional crisis that will determine whether a president can be held accountable by other branches of the government, as the Founders intended. If a sympathetic Congress declines to follow up in some way on clear evidence of impeachable offenses by a president, that, too, renders the highest official in the country unaccountable.
As for the other impeachable offense that Trump has invited, The Washington Post reported on Saturday that he had been personally pressing U.S. Postmaster General Morgan Brennan “to double the rate the Postal Service charges Amazon.com and other firms to ship packages.” This followed a series of tweeted attacks against Amazon and Bezos, some of which followed stories in the Post that the president particularly disliked. That Bezos is now the richest man in the world may stick in Trump’s craw, but for a president to use his powers to punish a single person or company is clearly an abuse of his office and an impeachable offense. And the fact that Trump is trying to punish a newspaper by financially hurting its owner is a scandalous abuse of power.
The articles of impeachment against Nixon drawn up by the House Judiciary Committee in 1974 relied on a “pattern and practice” of abuses of power—for example instigating wiretaps on certain individuals or siccing the Internal Revenue Service on perceived enemies—and there’s now plenty of evidence that Trump repeatedly attempted to abuse power, for example when he urged the Justice Department to resume an investigation of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation (the latter of which has in fact taken place). As for the attacks on Amazon, his newest and questionably helpful attorney Rudy Giuliani said in a television interview in early May that Trump had acted to kill a merger between AT&T and Time Warner (which owns his hated CNN), a statement that contradicted a number of previous White House denials (the White House once again denied this, and Giuliani tried to walk it back). And Trump’s obsessive, single-minded attacks on Bezos via Amazon and The Washington Post constitute their own pattern of abuse of power and therefore are grounds for another impeachable offense.
Given the amount of lying coming from the president and the White House (which itself could constitute an impeachable offense), learning the facts about the president’s actions is more challenging than at any time in modern history, perhaps since Woodrow Wilson’s wife governed during a cover-up of her husband’s grave illness.
According to the article in the Post about Trump’s effort to hurt Bezos’s profits, which the Post reporters said was based on information from three people, Trump has gone so far as to call Postmaster General Brennan into his office several times to pressure her to double the rates for shipping packages. While the U.S. Post Office is a semi-autonomous institution, the postmaster general is chosen by a board that the president appoints, and so he has considerable authority over that agency. This brazen abuse of power has reportedly been going on for the last year and a half. Thus far Brennan has resisted the president’s pressure, which can’t be an easy thing for an individual to do.
One wonders how this could have gone on for so long without someone on the president’s staff warning him he’s playing a very dangerous game. This could have to do with the weakness of his staff, or the president’s refusal to hear what he doesn’t want to, but such a pattern of abuse isn’t an obscure matter. Though it’s said that the presidential meetings with Brennan have been kept off his public schedule, certain presidential aides have to know whom the boss is meeting with—unless when she meets with the president a bag is put over her head and she uses an assumed name. In particular, Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn have reason to make it their business to know with whom the president is meeting in the Oval Office and what the agenda is, and presumably they would understand the danger inherent in the president’s attempts to bully the postmaster general into doing something to satisfy his personal grievances. Moreover, if Trump has felt he could exert such pressure with impunity, what else may he have done along these lines?
Trump’s obsession with Bezos and Amazon follows a pattern of willful ignorance. He leapt for a summit meeting with Kim Jong-un without thinking through its implications. His “trade war” with China has been on and then off. He went ahead with moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and ended up with the violence that so many Middle East experts (including Israeli military and security officials, past and present) had predicted, and without getting anything from Israel in return. His attacks on the Iran nuclear deal weren’t based on any apparent knowledge of its particulars; he exaggerates the problem of illegal immigration; he launched a trade war, which Trump had said are “good and easy to win,” without comprehending the effect on major sectors of the American economy or on our closest allies (or who used to be our closest allies).
Trump’s demand that the Justice Department inspect its own conduct during the 2016 campaign is based on a gross exaggeration (“infiltrated or surveilled” his campaign “for Political Purposes [sic]”) of the fact that an FBI informant was used to sniff out rumors that Russia was trying to help Trump to win the election. And in the case of Amazon, it apparently doesn’t matter to Trump that the Postal Service says that it profits handsomely from its contract with Amazon. This habit of a president acting on bad or no information is a danger to us all.
A Democratic-controlled House, which could result from the upcoming midterm elections, might impeach Trump, but at this point it seems highly unlikely that 67 votes can be found in the Senate to convict him and thus remove him from office. As yet we don’t know what all the charges might be, and it’s clear that more journalistic digging is in order to ascertain if the president has abused his powers in other ways. Perhaps the Amazon-postmaster general story will encourage other pressured government officials, if they exist, to come forward. The government isn’t a president’s play toy and whoever uses that office to carry out personal vendettas should pay a high price for that. If a president can attack an individual for a reason of his own, no one is safe.