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Impeaching Trump Is About More Than Punishment

House Democrats' report on Tuesday makes the case for protecting American democracy from further blows from the president.

Leon Neal/Getty Images

Impeachment is often understood as a punitive measure. When the president (or any other federal official) breaks their constitutional oath, Congress can step in and deprive the person of the office. But the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment report, released on Tuesday, makes clear that it can be a preventative one as well.

“Having witnessed the degree to which interference by a foreign power in 2016 harmed our democracy, President Trump cannot credibly claim ignorance to its pernicious effects,” the report says. It notes, as many others have, that Trump’s infamous July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came one day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified before Congress on his findings in the Russia investigation. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who chairs the committee, has cited that realization as a key moment that pushed him in favor of impeachment proceedings. Tuesday’s report by the committee’s Democratic majority mirrors his concern about its implications.

“With this backdrop, the solicitation of new foreign intervention was the act of a president unbound, not one chastened by experience,” the report says. “It was the act of a president who viewed himself as unaccountable and determined to use his vast official powers to secure his reelection.” That is, the Democrats make a case for impeaching Trump not just to punish him for past sins against the republic, but because he will keep committing similar sins unless Congress stops him.

The 300-page report is almost 150 pages shorter than Mueller’s massive tome. The House Judiciary Committee will find it useful when drafting articles of impeachment, as its members now plan to do in the coming weeks. It is more lively, readable, and unsparing of the president than the former FBI director’s ponderous account of his team’s findings, to be sure. But the committee’s report was still clearly written by former prosecutors, not Agatha Christie. Conveying its conclusions to the public will take more effort.

Another force shaping the report is the ongoing debate among House Democrats about the pace and the scope of the impeachment inquiry itself. Should lawmakers wait for the courts to vindicate their subpoenas against top presidential aides? Or should they use the White House’s refusal to cooperate as proof of obstruction and not pin their hopes on Chief Justice John Roberts? Should other instances of presidential misconduct—obstructing Mueller’s inquiry, funneling government funds to Trump’s family business, igniting a humanitarian crisis on the border, and more—be included? Or is it enough to impeach Al Capone for tax evasion?

The report ultimately sides with speed and focus over caution and completion. Its authors still make a good show of trying to have it both ways. “Given the proximate threat of further presidential attempts to solicit foreign interference in our next election, we cannot wait to make a referral until our efforts to obtain additional testimony and documents wind their way through the courts,” the report explains. “The evidence of the President’s misconduct is overwhelming, and so too is the evidence of his obstruction of Congress.” Trump’s public request two months ago for China to investigate the Bidens—and his aides’ conspicuous refusal to deny that they’ve brought it up in trade negotiations with Beijing—strengthens the authors’ case for urgency.

Most of Tuesday’s report focused on the scheme itself: how Trump, through intermediaries like his legal fixer Rudy Giuliani and donor-ambassador Gordon Sondland, pressured Zelenskiy to announce a fake corruption investigation that would implicate Joe Biden and his son. That plot unraveled once news of the military-aid freeze became public in late August. Trump released the aid two days after lawmakers demanded a whistleblower complaint on the matter, and Zelenskiy canceled a scheduled CNN appearance in which he planned to accede to Trump’s demands.

But the Ukraine scheme lives on in another form. The committee’s Republican minority released a counter-report on Monday, acting as a dissent of sorts from the majority’s conclusions. It is a thorough distillation of the talking points that Trump’s defenders put forward over the past three months. The report claims that Trump did nothing wrong, that he was actually concerned about widespread corruption in Ukraine, that the evidence doesn’t support the allegations against him, that Democrats and “unelected bureaucrats” are out to get him, and that the Bidens should still be investigated for corruption. In essence, it is Trump’s Twitter feed over the last three months, albeit with less vitriol and more footnotes.

The report defends the president by eliding the most damaging evidence against him. “Where there are ambiguous facts, the Democrats interpret them in a light most unfavorable to the president,” its authors wrote, without irony. The report claims that Trump only “raised in passing” the Bidens during his July 25 call with Zelenskiy and that the two of them “did not discuss the topic substantively.” And yet multiple staffers testified to Congress that they were so alarmed by the call that they reported it to White House lawyers.

While this report tries to frame Trump’s effort to solicit a foreign power to sabotage his rivals as a brief interlude in a friendly discussion about other things, November’s congressional hearings showed how Trump and his allies sidelined career diplomats and national security experts so that Giuliani and other underlings could carry out the pressure campaign. Those officials had to reconstruct what was happening with only partial information, which Republicans then held against them. “In the absence of real evidence, the Democrats appeal to emotion—evaluating how unelected bureaucrats felt about the events in question,” the GOP report said, channeling the spirit of Ben Shapiro, the right-wing columnist who tells debate opponents that “facts don’t care about your feelings.”

And sometimes opponents don’t care about facts: The White House responded to the House Intelligence Committee’s official report on Tuesday by claiming that it vindicated them. “At the end of a one-sided sham process, Chairman Schiff and the Democrats utterly failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump,” White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement on Tuesday afternoon. It’s tempting to dismiss that assertion as a lie, but the reality is more troubling. The problem isn’t that evidence of wrongdoing wasn’t found. The problem is that Trump and his allies don’t think what he did was wrong.