Trump’s Impeachable Conduct Strikes at the Heart of the Rule of Law: Part 1

President Donald Trump leaves the Oval Office at the White House, September 12, 2019, Washington, D.C.

Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.

This is part one in a series documenting the ways in which President Trump’s actions related to Ukraine violate basic tenets of American law. Read the second installment—which covers a variety of laws, including campaign finance violations, witness tampering, and criminal conspiracy—here.

This week, President Donald Trump feigned surprise that his “perfect” conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be considered an impeachable offense. Both the summary of the Trump-Zelensky call and the allegations in the whistleblower complaint, however, make it clear that Trump’s actions are in direct conflict with core tenets of American law.

Here is what we know so far: Before speaking with President Zelensky, Trump blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine. This week, Trump claimed that he did so in response to Ukrainian corruption. A Pentagon letter contradicted this claim, however, certifying that Ukraine had made the institutional reforms needed to receive the aid.

During his call with Zelensky, Trump noted that the United States does “a lot for Ukraine,” but that such help isn’t “reciprocal necessarily.” Trump then asked for a “favor”—for Ukraine to investigate conspiracy theories that could benefit Trump politically. Most notably, he asked Zelensky to investigate the family of one of Trump’s political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump ended the call by noting that he would have his allies—personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Attorney General William Barr—follow up about that investigation. Underpinning all of this is Ukraine’s need for U.S. support and reported understanding that such support was tied to a “willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues that had been publicly aired.”

While impeachment does not require any specific violation of statute, throughout federal and state law across the United States, conduct such as that in which Trump appears to have engaged—acts such as coercive bribery or extortion, especially involving public officials—is unlawful.

Below are just a few examples:

  • The U.S. Constitution explicitly includes bribery as a reason to impeach a president: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
  • The statute governing bribery by public officials, 18 U.S. Code § 201, repeatedly states that bribery can occur “directly or indirectly.”
  • The Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951, defines “extortion” by a public official as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent … under color of official right.” Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy, concurring in the majority opinion on the Hobbs Act in the Supreme Court case Evans v. United States, elaborates specifically on how quid pro quo agreements may be identified:

The official and the payor need not state the quid pro quo in express terms, for otherwise the law’s effect could be frustrated by knowing winks and nods. The inducement from the official is criminal if it is express or if it is implied from his words and actions, so long as he intends it to be so and the payor so interprets it.

  • Trump’s home state is no different: New York has enacted strong prohibitions against extortion by public officials. Under the state’s penal code, extortion can occur when a public official “instill[s] in the victim a fear” that if something of value is not delivered, that public official will:

Use or abuse his position as a public servant by engaging in conduct within or related to his official duties, or by failing or refusing to perform an official duty, in such manner as to affect some person adversely.

At all levels of federal and state law, conduct such as that in which Trump appears to have engaged with respect to Ukraine is recognized as corrupt and unlawful. If Trump were merely a common mob boss, he would be held accountable for his actions. As president, he should also be held accountable—impeached and removed from office by the U.S. Congress. Trump is not above the law, and elected officials have the duty to prove that now to the American people.

Maggie Jo Buchanan is the director of Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.

Find more about Trump’s Constitutional Crisis as it develops here.