What’s impeachable? A user’s guide

For those who did not have time to watch the House Judiciary Committee open their portion of the President Donald Trump impeachment inquiry on Wednesday, here are the Chapter One CliffsNotes: Before filing articles of impeachment, Congress must first decide what constitutes an impeachable offense based on four instances outlined in the U.S. Constitution: “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” But what is a high crime? What is a misdemeanor? The first order of business, then, was to trot out legal experts to help members better understand how to make the distinction between inappropriate behavior (of which there’s been so much) and impeachable behavior (of which there has surely been less).

Frankly, it’s not all that complicated. As Wednesday’s experts explained, the framers did not want the president to be above the law. Standing for reelection, as James “Father of the Constitution” Madison once observed, was not a sufficient guard against corruption. The words, “high crimes and misdemeanors,” were not abstract terms but represented specific language of the day. It meant abuse of office for personal gain or to corrupt the electoral process or to subvert the national security of the United States. The “high” in crimes merely referred to the office of the president.


Yet it’s clear that Republicans remain confused or at least have spent too much time reading Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed. Individually and collectively they remain wholly uninterested in recognizing that the July 25 phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky and Mr. Trump’s broader effort to leverage military aid and a presidential meeting to force Ukraine’s president to announce a bogus investigation of his political adversaries fits that standard. Bribery, abuse of power, soliciting a foreign leader for personal benefit, obstructing Congress? It would all seem to be there even if his efforts did not prove successful. So why is there so little desire among GOP members of the committee — or within the full House for that matter — to hold the president to his oath of office?

The obvious conclusion is that they’ve closed ranks and decided to put partisan interests above the nation’s interests and have gone “all in” for President Trump. But let’s allow for another possibility. Perhaps some are holding onto the possibility that Mr. Trump’s behavior was just inappropriate and not impeachable. As unlikely as that might be (if only because of U.S. national security interests given Ukraine’s conflict with Russia was involved), it might be useful for members to be reminded of bad behavior that is not impeachable. So let’s offer this partial list:


1. Lying to the public. Mr. Trump does this all the time, perhaps more than any previous Oval Office occupant (more than 13,400 times, according to The Washington Post running tally). But it’s not a crime.

2. Pursuing offensive policies. Separating from their families and imprisoning immigrant children in record numbers, greatly expanding the deficit to finance a tax cut for the rich, ignoring climate change, praising brutal dictators around the globe while mocking critical news coverage as “fake?” All big mistakes but none impeachable.

3. Saying (or tweeting) really foolish things. Offering to buy Greenland on a lark, suggesting he would date his daughter Ivanka if she were not his daughter, his observation that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue without losing political support and his tweet that his “IQ is one of the highest” certainly meet that standard. Alas, not a high crime or misdemeanor.

4. Acting like an oaf. Call it a subset of Item 3, but blatant acts of bigotry and sexism (of which there are so many) don’t seem to hit the standard either. Shame.

5. Throwing underlings under the bus. Well, if done literally absolutely. Alas, Mr. Trump’s record is more figurative. Just ask Michael Cohen, Rex Tillerson, H.R. McMaster, John Kelly, James Mattis and on and on. Again, not a high crime.

Hope that explanation helps, Rep. Doug Collins and fellow Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee. As much as they seem to enjoy the legal and intellectual contortions required to see no wrongdoing in Mr. Trump’s Ukraine scheme, invent obfuscations or complain about the process while the White House stonewalls, the American people have a right to expect the president to be held accountable for his actions. The case for impeachment is too convincing to ignore (or dishonestly subvert) any longer.