What kind of damage was inflicted on American democracy in 2019 when President Trump withheld nearly $400 million in approved U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and dangled a coveted White House meeting to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into declaring a criminal corruption probe of former Vice President Joe Biden—all in order to sabotage Biden’s campaign and secure Trump’s reelection?
It is an important and tantalizing question but not a straightforward one, and it still has no obvious answer in the court of American public opinion. Public sentiment intuitively judged the Ukraine shakedown to be “wrong” from the beginning, but the failure of the House impeachment team to define the character and magnitude of the harm resulting from the Ukraine shakedown helped to seal the fate of the impeachment drive in the skeptical and cultish GOP-run Senate. Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives on December 18, 2019 on a vote of 230-196 but cavalierly acquitted by the Senate on both counts on February 5, 2020, with all Republicans voting to acquit on each count except Utah Senator Mitt Romney, who voted to convict on the abuse of power charge.
Rolling their eyes about an exercise they deemed moralistic, partisan, and picayune, Trump’s defenders argued that “no harm” had been inflicted on the polity by the charged presidential conduct and that “no crime” had even been alleged in the impeachment resolution. The “no crime” point was simple word play: Trump’s defenders acted as if constitutional crimes do not exist and all impeachments must be based on statutory offenses. This position has been rejected continuously over the decades by both Democratic and Republican leaders and is plainly at odds with constitutional history, language, structure, and precedent. The constitutional crime of “abuse of power” has been well-established in the impeachment drives, cases, and jurisprudence surrounding Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and numerous federal judges.
But the “no harm” argument had far more sticking power because the House impeachment team struggled to define the precise nature of the harm caused when Trump recruited a foreign power to aid the President’s reelection campaign, especially when the scheme was revealed and the President’s defenders could cry “no harm, no foul” and “all’s well that ends well.”
The President’s defenders and sycophants described the Ukraine shakedown as a commonplace exercise of presidential power over foreign policy. In an October 2019 news conference, then-White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney justified the effort to coerce Ukraine this way: “We do that all the time with foreign policy . . . I have news for everybody: Get over it. There’s going to be political influence in foreign policy.”
During the Senate impeachment trial, Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz took to the Senate floor in defense of Trump, characterizing the Ukraine shakedown as an intrinsically valid effort by the President to promote the public interest by securing his own reelection. “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Dershowitz argued. “And mostly you’re right. Your election is in the public interest. And if a President did something that he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” Even the tortured syntax and slippery grammar could not mask Dershowitz’s startling claim: that any President who believes his reelection is in the public interest (that is, all of them!) may use his office and government resources to commit constitutional crimes if he or she believes the crimes could aid in his drive to reelection.
The question of harm has continuing nagging relevance as the incorrigible, ungovernable, and reelection-obsessed Donald Trump has kept up his daily mob-style shakedown tactics, even making a public pitch to the Chinese government to investigate Biden during the course of the impeachment proceedings, essentially taunting the House and daring it to launch yet another investigation for another impeachment article.
Moreover, Trump’s “no harm, no foul” Ukraine impeachment defense quickly converged with his defenders’ constant and versatile apologia for the “active measure” involvement of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his agents in the 2016 American presidential campaign that propelled Trump to the White House in the first place. From the start, GOP Members of Congress dismissed the relevance of Putin’s “sweeping and systematic” campaign (in the words of Special Counsel Robert Mueller) to change the course of events in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign for Trump, because even if these “Deep State” allegations were true, what could be the harm of releasing more information about Hillary’s emails and more online speech about the Clintons’ corruption and betrayal of white people in America?
Putin was clearly acting in the best traditions of our cherished First Amendment (unlike the thousands of civil rights protesters tear gassed and beaten by Trump and Bill Barr’s secret police force unleashed in Lafayette Square and Portland, Oregon!). Republicans also repeatedly denied and obscured Trump’s enthusiastic embrace and encouragement of Putin’s efforts to conduct cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening . . .”) and to inject racial, religious, and ideological poison into the bloodstream of American political life through Facebook and other social media.
Trump and his defenders have come to describe the overwhelming evidence of Putin’s intervention and the Trump campaign’s cozy relationship with Putin’s political emissaries as the “Russia hoax” and continue to falsely claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had found “no collusion” and “no conspiracy” between Putin and the Trump campaign. Mueller specifically refused to pronounce upon the question of “collusion,” which is not even a formal legal concept (outside of the antitrust field), and found only that his prosecutors—facing intense obstruction by Trump and entourage—had not yet assembled sufficient evidence to charge criminal conspiracy, which is radically different from finding that there was “no evidence“ that conspiracy had ever taken place.
So the question of public harm persists and looms large: How does American democracy suffer when President Donald Trump invites, encourages, or coerces various foreign powers to enter American politics to assist his reelection and sabotage his opponents?
To answer the question, we must demystify and de-reify the central term of “democracy,” something that should be a lot easier to do today, after three and a half years with Donald Trump in office, than it was before we ever got to know Vladimir Putin’s corrupt orange puppet. Democracy is not, alas, a divinely conferred institutional bedrock in America or the happy inexorable result of “American exceptionalism,” but rather a constant political work in progress, a see-saw battle to defend, consolidate, and build upon the hard-won gains of prior popular struggles against every form of tyranny, despotism, and injustice known to our species.
America began not as a democracy, but as a slave republic of Christian white male property owners over the age of 21. It is only through successive waves of popular struggle that we as a society have overthrown slavery; political white supremacy; Jim Crow apartheid and disenfranchisement; the legal subordination and political disenfranchisement of women; wealth and property qualifications for voting; and the exploitation and degradation of people as workers in the industrial economy. Today, popular struggles continue against structural racism, pervasive economic inequality, plutocratic domination of our politics, runaway corporate power, unprecedented market dominance of the cyber-barons, and the terrifying dangers of carbon pollution and environmental exploitation.
Viewed through the prism of popular struggle for equality and empowerment, the recruitment of foreign governments to interfere in our elections constitutes a massive structural derailment of democratic progress and a fundamental derangement of the modern norms of one person-one vote participation. Foreign actors with nothing invested in the development of our people should have no sway at all over our elections, our government, or our future. Why the hell would Vladimir Putin care about stopping police brutality in Minneapolis, winning statehood for people in Washington, D.C. or Puerto Rico, or fighting for environmental justice and a Green New Deal to break from the carbon barons and the intensifying calamities of climate change?
The Founders perceived early on the corrupt threat posed to American self-sovereignty by hovering and meddling foreign states. In Federalist No. 68, Hamilton identified the “desire [of] foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our counsels” as an essential source of corruption and “one of the most deadly adversaries of republican government.” In a letter written in 1787, John Adams wrote, “As often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs.” And in his 1796 farewell address, George Washington famously warned against all foreign entanglements: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence . . . the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
The President’s mobilization of foreign governments to sabotage his domestic political opponent drains our democracy of popular control and legitimacy. The Ukraine shakedown further converted Congress’s pro-democracy foreign policy into a mob-style rogue operation (lest we overlook the role of Rudy Giuliani and his clownish henchmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman) that exploited a struggling democracy and worked to subordinate it to a foreign autocratic state.
The only response to the massive damage wrought by these events must be the reassertion of the rule of law and the revival of popular political movements that bring law closer to justice. This is why the most eloquent and effective answer so far has been the most surprising: the spread of Black Lives Matters and mass protest for civil rights and strong democracy in America.