By Frank Bowman
I’ve been asked on Twitter and by a couple of news outlets for my opinion on whether anything reported about the Bolton book, particularly Mr. Trump’s meetings with Xi Jinping of China, constitutes a plausible impeachable offense. With two opening caveats, my thoughts on that question follow.
Caveats: (1) I haven’t read the book, and have only press reports. Which makes commenting definitively pretty hard. (2) At this stage of the electoral cycle, impeachment is a pipe dream. And would be even if we had not witnessed the complete abandonment of principle by Senate Republicans in February. So all discussion on the point is entirely theoretical.
Thoughts: On the Xi meeting in which Trump reportedly asks for election help — Standing alone, while I think having an American president plead with a foreign authoritarian for help in an election is despicable, I’m not sure it fits easily into any category of impeachable offenses. If I understand what happened correctly, Trump in effect said, “Buy more soy beans and wheat from American farmers because that will help me win reelection.” In other words, he asked the Chinese leader to do something that would be good for a segment of the American economy, which would in turn have a positive electoral effect for Trump. That’s demeaning for an American president. Slimy, even. But impeachable? That’s tough.
Although Trump was open and crass, I don’t know that this request was categorically different than things that other presidents may have said or implied in conversations with foreign leaders in the past. All national leaders are transactional creatures and they all know each other’s political postures and the value of favors. And the key is that Trump isn’t asking for something that would be bad for the U.S., and he doesn’t obviously seem to use the powers of his office to promise anything in return. Those were the defining features of the Ukraine business. There, Trump was misusing his power over American military and diplomatic assets to get something of personal value in a way that was directly contrary to U.S. national security interests.
One could, I suppose, weave the Xi meeting and Trump’s pleas into the larger, and persistent, Trump pattern of subversion of America’s foreign policy interests through the destruction of an alliance, treaty, and global security structure built and led by the U.S. since World War II. And I have argued elsewhere that this pattern would in theory be an impeachable offense. See my piece in Foreign Affairs. But in many respects the Xi meeting revelations rank rather low on the scale of Trump offenses in this area.
That said, the fact that Uighur concentration camps were supposedly mentioned later in the same meeting could change the analysis. We have Trump asking for an economic boost to U.S. farmers as a personal electoral favor. Then, later in the same conversation, Xi says he’s building concentration camps for a minority — something a US president would be expected to reject and publicly disapprove, to the considerable embarrassment of the Chinese. Instead, Trump signals his approval of a massive human rights violation contrary to longstanding US values and foreign policy objectives.
If we tie the two things together, we now have a horrifying sellout of American principles as an implied inducement for an electoral favor — i.e., the unstated thread of the conversation becomes: Trump asks for economic boost for U.S. farmers to help himself reelected and implicitly promises no diplomatic pushback against Chinese for their destruction of the Uighurs. Now you’re edging into impeachment territory.
But to repeat, at this point, impeachment is not a practical possibility, and, in my view, it would not even be a useful political exercise to threaten it in the House. If the country wants Trump gone, it will have to vote him out,