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Source: White House transcript of a conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

By: Joseph Oliveri

On Tuesday, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) announced that Congress will begin formal impeachment inquiries against President Donald Trump. Pelosi, who, up until now, deflected the possibility of impeachment because it would exacerbate partisan division, said “the actions taken to date, by the president, have seriously violated the Constitution,” adding, “no one is above the law.”

In order for articles of impeachment to be drawn up, a President must, per the Constitution, commit “high crimes and misdemeanors.” In this case, this refers to Trump’s alleged petitioning of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate potentially damaging claims against 2020 presidential frontrunner Joe Biden and his son Hunter. But the request came packaged with the threat of withholding a nearly $400 million aid package to Ukraine that had already been approved by Congress.

But looking at the contexts in which Congress has chosen to (or, rather, neglected to) interpret what, exactly, constitutes a high crime or a misdemeanor with regards to presidential conduct reveals some sobering realities about the way our government works and what it really does.

First, let’s consider what other presidents have done that might meet the Constitution’s rhetorical criterion. Let’s ask ourselves whether killing American citizens in drone strikes is criminal or not. What about the PATRIOT Act? Suspending habeus corpus and committing brutal acts of torture, perhaps? Let’s ask ourselves whether the President who came the closest to losing his office via impeachment for sexual escapades was less of a criminal for doing that than for spearheading horrific bombings of Kosovo and Yugoslavia, destroying a vital pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan, and stoking the fires of a humanitarian crisis in Iraq with cruel economic sanctions. Even the Watergate scandal, which bears an important resemblance to this Trump-Ukraine ordeal, unfolded while a massive covert operation known as COINTELPRO, which was aimed at subverting civil rights and activist groups, was wrapping up.

Notice the incongruity. When it’s time for people to be held accountable for wrongdoing, it’s simple: justice must be served post-haste when people in power are threatened. When the powerless are hurt, as long as those in power are satisfied, our country goes to great lengths to make sure those crimes aren’t paid for in the manner they are supposed to be.

Second, there’s the argument Pelosi invoked in her Tuesday announcement: Trump and Zelensky’s conversation creates a “constitutional crisis.” Nothing new. President after president has defied constitutional authority by initiating wars without the approval of Congress since as early as the Truman administration. The Bush administration’s repeated disregard for the Constitution (suspending search-and-seizure rights and flat-out ignoring congressional subpoenas, for example) is perhaps the most recent iteration of this pattern, but history is rich with examples. Obama’s intervention in Libya was similar. As if that isn’t enough, the whistleblower element to the Trump-Ukraine story is painfully ironic, considering how people like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning have been treated.

Finally, the narrative that the supposed constitutional crisis that Trump has spurned is just as disingenuous as the charge that playing dirty against the Biden camp is gauche and unheard of: in 2016, it was Democrats who tried to enlist Ukraine to help dig up dirt about then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Behind the curtain, the Democratic party is a power structure that shares most of the same interests as the Republican party. Impeachment is one of many ways either of these powerful groups can contest who holds more proactive agency when it comes to governance. The Democrats see impeaching Trump as a means of removing the obstacle of his bad optics, and his alone. The platforms of both the Democratic and Republican parties aren’t exactly the antithesis of Trumpism. The Democratic party is routinely hostile to those within their ranks who accurately decry their policy positions as inadequately progressive. They, as do Republicans, bend over backwards to appease corporate interests, start wars that drain our economy, and ignore the suffering of working-class people. 

Responding to impeachment talks amid the Mueller Report’s release in April, Bhaskar Sunkara wrote in The Guardian:

“The lofty goal of saving the soul of the Republic doesn’t resonate with the millions of Americans living paycheck to paycheck. Their political priority is rightly decent jobs, healthcare, housing rights…it’s hard to see how talk of impeachment, Russia, obstruction and corruption speaks to the anger and needs of ordinary Americans.”

It’s a troubling, complex issue. The president should absolutely be held accountable for overreaches of executive power, but getting rid of Trump himself is akin to replacing the tires on a totaled car. Ousting a morally bankrupt president won’t fix a morally bankrupt government.