Information regarding the history and context of impeachment may help to clarify both the standards and the appropriate response to such actions.
Although impeachment rarely applies to presidents, comparable standards also apply to other executive officers and to federal judges who serve for a lifetime if not impeached. Including such cases, we have had a total of at least 17 impeachments in our history, with most of those involving judges.
The underlying basis in a majority of those cases involved “abuse of power,” a phrase applied to those who misuse their government positions without necessarily being confined to explicit criminal conduct. For example, in 1913, Congress impeached Judge Robert Archbald for using his position as a federal judge to enter into profitable business arrangements with potential litigants before his court, a charge that did not violate existing criminal laws but surely did constitute abuse of his position.
That example should help us understand current impeachment issues, but it may be difficult to appreciate the analogy because it is frankly hard for many of us to relate to the remote Ukrainian setting of alleged misbehavior.
Imagine instead a president who asks Gov. Laura Kelly for a personal “favor” while threatening to withhold congressionally prescribed highway construction funds unless she accedes to that request. Such a threat would constitute a form of extortion or bribery, and therefore an impeachable abuse of power, regardless of technical underlying measures of criminality. Threats to expose or malign a protected whistleblower who exposes such corruption would compound that abuse.
A comparable threat to withhold congressionally designated funding to a foreign government could be much worse, especially if it involves seeking prohibited election-related support from a foreign government while placing personal gain above national interests. Such behavior should not be equated with threats to withhold funds to advance accepted international goals. American diplomats understand these distinctions, which helps to explain their concern when the lines appeared to have been crossed.
Abusive targeting of such professionals who express legitimate concerns should raise additional alarm.
When George Washington chaired the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he and others understood the need for constitutional protection from abuse of power by an American president acting in concert with a foreign power. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton described impeachment as a remedy for offenses “which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political,” and which arise from “the abuse or violation of some public trust.”
We now face the challenge of applying those standards.
Regardless of the conclusions we reach after considering the evidence, we should at the very least appreciate the dangers and support those who establish precedent that protects us from future abuse.
Bill Rich is the James R. Ahrens Professor of Constitutional Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka. He can be reached at email@example.com.