Quid Pro So? What’s the Big Deal about, Anyway?

Αssociated Press

FILE - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., reads a statement announcing a formal impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

John and Jim are both longtime state senators and are now running for governor of their state. John wants to do everything in his power to win, and so he hires a private detective to keep a close eye on Jim. As it turns out, the detective obtains correct information that Jim has been stealing public money and funneling it to his overseas account. Gleefully, John discloses the information. Jim is arrested, pleads guilty, resigns his position, and ends his campaign. John is elected governor.

The question is, regardless of John’s self-serving motives, isn’t what John did a good thing for the people of the state? Never mind that the only thing John might care about is his own political future, isn’t it good that corruption was uncovered and that a criminal did not become governor?

Let’s apply that reasoning to the looming threat of impeaching President Trump. Whether or not Trump did something wrong depends on how the information is presented. “Trump Asks Ukraine to Investigate if Biden Improperly Used His Authority as VP” tells a much different story than “Trump Pressures Ukraine to Investigate Political Rival.”  That Joe Biden is running for president in 2020 and is thus a political rival of Trump, who is also running, may well be the motivator for Trump’s eagerness to have him investigated, but Trump’s reasons are really irrelevant. If a sitting vice president misused his position, Americans have a right to know. Especially since that individual is now running for president.

Consider another example: Evelyn is an engineer for the U.S. Department of Defense, and there are rumors circulating that she is leaking classified information in exchange for cash payoffs. She resigns her job and flees the country, resettling in Sweden, though her specific location in that country remains undisclosed. While there, she announces via Twitter that she is running for president in 2020 as well, and launches a campaign website. Meanwhile, President Trump becomes aware of the rumors of her passing along classified information and asks the Swedish government to help locate her. Would it be wrong for Trump to ask Sweden for help in tracking down Evelyn because she is his ‘political rival?’ If that were the case, that’s a green light for all criminals in the United States who are on the run to travel overseas and announce that they’re running for president.

There is now talk that somehow Trump violated campaign finance laws because he accepted “something of value” to his campaign from a foreign government, the same feckless argument made against him in the supposed Russia collusion debacle that took “anticlimactic” to a whole new level. Even if Trump had phoned Vladimir Putin and said: “Hey, Vladimir, can you dig up some dirt on Hillary (Clinton, his 2016 political rival)?” whether Trump broke any laws would depend on the dirt in question. If the information was embarrassing but not illegal – for instance, suppose it was discovered that Clinton likes to sleep with a pacifier in her mouth and holding a rattle, as if she were a baby – that would certainly have done tremendous damage to her campaign, and under the law, Trump could be in trouble for it, if “value” is deemed to include non-monetary benefits. To date, whether information constitutes value is intensely debated. But, in any case, if the information was about something Clinton did that was against the law, then it is not only proper, but arguably imperative, that the president reach out to anyone – including foreign leaders – to get to the bottom of it.

One of the most famous and most bitter political feuds in American history was between our second and third presidents, respectively, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two battled for the presidency twice: Adams won in 1796 and Jefferson in 1800. Their rivalry lasted long thereafter; amazingly, both men died on the same day, July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years after the United States was founded. Throughout their careers and presidencies, Adams maintained particularly strong ties with Britain and Jefferson with France. There is little doubt that each used his influence with a particular foreign ally to gain “something of value” in the campaign against his political rival.

Even more telling is President Lincoln’s “Russia collusion.” During the American Civil War, while England and other nations were siding with the Southern states that seceded and formed the Confederate States of America – a country not recognized by the United States or anyone else – Lincoln turned to Russia for help. Essentially, since the Confederacy was never really a nation but a large renegade faction at political odds with the president, Lincoln’s overtures to Russia were technically an effort to seek the help of a foreign country in the campaign against a “political rival.”

Throughout history, there have been several other instances. There has long been speculation that in 1940, England’s Winston Churchill openly helped Franklin Roosevelt, in 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev helped John Kennedy win, in 1968, Richard Nixon met with Northern Vietnamese officials, promising that he was better than his main rival, Hubert Humphrey, of negotiating peace, and in 1980, President-Elect Reagan’s team timed the release of Iranian hostages so it would occur moments after Reagan was sworn in.

Let’s face it, the average American who is not already obsessed with Trump’s removal from office is not going to be swayed by these charges.

Including Trump, only four American presidents have ever undergone a formal impeachment inquiry. The other three were Andrew Johnson, Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Only Johnson and Clinton were actually impeached. Of the four inquiries, only Nixon’s had merit: it was about his role in covering up a break-in by his men at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters. Breaking and entering is something with teeth, that the average American can recognize as “bad.” In stark contrast, Johnson was impeached for violating a law that Congress passed specifically to thwart his authority, and which was soon thereafter struck down as unconstitutional. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about an extramarital affair. Both Johnson and Clinton were acquitted, and each became more popular as a result of the impeachment’s vindication. Nixon was never impeached, but the probability of his impeachment and conviction was high enough for him to resign. That’s the difference, and that’s why Trump is far more likely to emerge from this politically motivated witch hunt the way Johnson and Clinton did. For those who think the current circumstances are like another Watergate, don’t bet on it.