It’s the forest, not the trees.
President Trump and his apologists have done a marvelous job of obfuscating the horrifying abuses of his office. Presented with a dense forest of almost daily rants, shady deals, criminal acts, and brazen attacks on the Constitution, they have quibbled over every individual tree. The media have fallen into this trap, examining each tree and sapling with commendable fervor, and the Democrats in Congress have been dragged along because impeachment depends on public perception, not legal culpability.
First it was about whether paying women to keep quiet about extramarital affairs was a crime. It was—a violation of federal election law, because the payments were made in service of the election campaign—but the President and his gang were too ignorant to know it was crooked, so by an odd legal quirk they were excused. Then Trump fired James Comey, which led to Mueller’s investigation. And although Mueller made it clear that Trump had acted in a variety of ways to encourage and exploit Russian interference in the 2016 election, he could not make a case for criminal conspiracy, nor indict the president for obstruction of justice. And besides, obstruction of justice is just a “process crime,” they said.
Now it’s the attempt to pressure the Ukrainian government into helping Trump in the 2020 election, by threatening to withhold essential military aid. The Republicans’ defense this time has been that it didn’t happen (though Trump’s own transcript clearly shows it did), that there was no quid pro quo (though his chief of staff admitted it) that the whistleblower should be outed (which would be illegal and dangerous), that Ukraine’s president didn’t complain about it (as if he were in any position to do so), that the aid was ultimately received anyway (although only because the Congress got wind of the holdup and insisted), that Trump isn’t receiving a fair trial (which hasn’t started yet), that maybe it all did happen but it’s not a big deal, that everybody does it, that all the corroborating witnesses are dishonest, that Hunter Biden is the real culprit, etc.
The hearings that begin on Wednesday will open with Adam Schiff laying out the elements of case, and this presentation may be the most critical element of the whole impeachment process—which makes it possibly the most important oration in the past half-century of American history. But it will be all too easy to fall into the trap of describing the trees in incontrovertible detail, while overlooking the dark forest of wrongdoing that is not simply “impeachable,” but demands impeachment and removal from office.
To avoid that error, Schiff should begin with a simple statement: The president cheated in the 2016 election, and has set in motion a strategy to cheat in the upcoming election. All of the specific charges—of paying off women, of misusing campaign funds, of publicly asking the Russians to dig up Hilary Clinton’s emails, of firing Comey and Sessions and replacing the latter with his “Roy Cohn,” of extorting President Zelinskyy to announce that he would investigate Hunter Biden, and of harassing and threatening violence against civil servants, the press, and private citizens—all of it has been directed at the singular goal of perverting the electoral process.
Taken individually, some of these actions are criminal. Some are immoral. Some are merely “improper” or “violations of sacred norms” or “unbecoming of the office.” Many are simply “un-American.” But to take them individually is to miss the point entirely: Trump’s principal agenda as president has been to subvert the institutions of government to his personal ambitions and render the Constitution itself moot. And the most effective way to achieve that end is to destroy the validity of the electoral process. Chairman Schiff must make this clear: Trump must be removed from office. We can’t rely on the voice of the people to remove him if that voice itself is distorted by election chicanery.