By Frank Bowman
My new friend (and landlord when in D.C.), Shikha Dalmia, of the Reason Foundation and columnist for “The Week,” asked me to explain why it should matter constitutionally that Mr. Trump may have used his powers over domestic law enforcement, military affairs, and foreign diplomacy to obtain negative information on Vice President Biden and his son. This was my best effort at a response:
The essence of impeachable abuse of power is using a power legitimately granted by presidential office for an illegitimate purpose. The most common illegitimate purpose is using official authority to promote one’s private interests.
In authoritarian states like Putin’s Russia, it may be seen as normal for a leader to use state power to ensure his continuation in office. In this country, we consider a president’s interest in getting re-elected to be a private, rather than a public interest. Therefore, although we understand that presidents, and all elected officials, will have an eye on public reaction and thus their political prospects when they exercise the powers of office, it remains profoundly improper – un-American I might even say – for a president to leverage his official power to disadvantage political opponents.
This is particularly so in the case of investigations of supposed criminal wrongdoing. One of the hallmarks of what we Americans loftily call “banana republics” is the tendency of each incoming administration to bring criminal charges against leaders of the outgoing administration. Leaving aside the fact that such charges are often (pardon the term) trumped up, the danger is that the stakes of losing become too high. That is, good people won’t enter political life because the risks are too great. Those who do shortly realize that the price of losing an election could be financial ruin or even prison. Thus, they are tempted to go to any extreme to win, and so avoid the awful results of losing.
When we talk proudly about our uninterrupted history of peaceful transfer of power, we are referring not only to the absence of military coups or violence in the streets, but to the fact that public officers lose elections and go quietly back to private life, unmolested by the organs of the state. Trump’s misuse of power here is dreadful for two reasons:
First, he is trying to drag us into the abyss of political investigations and prosecutions that could destroy the essential, and widely admired, character of our politics. Second, the threat he employed to pursue dirt on VP Biden and son was to withdraw American support from a vulnerable country on the edge of an expansionist Russia. Doing so is not only immoral, but subverts the 70-year bipartisan consensus that peace and stability in Europe requires containing any expansionist tendency of the Russians.
These are matters of the utmost seriousness. No American of either party can afford to dismiss them.