Imagine a car thief who approached a vehicle in a parking lot, took out his tools, and began trying to unlock the door of his chosen target. At this point, someone else in the parking lot took notice and called the police, who arrived and arrested the thief.
“What are you arresting me for?” the thief asked the officers. “I didn’t steal the car. The owner still has the car right now! You’re planning to punish me for stealing a car that wasn’t stolen? There’s no law against not stealing a car.”
Keep this hypothetical scenario in mind when considering what former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell in a new interview.
“You’re gonna impeach a president for asking for a favor that didn’t happen and – and giving money and it wasn’t withheld?” Haley said. “I don’t know what you would impeach him on. And look, Norah, impeachment is, like, the death penalty for a public official.”
“When you look at the transcript, there’s nothing in that transcript that warrants the death penalty for the president,” she said, referring to a summary of a call President Trump had in July with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
For now, let’s put aside some of the more annoying details of Haley’s unfortunate pitch, skipping past the fact that the call summary isn’t a transcript; the July 25 call is just one part of a much larger scandal; and there are no meaningful similarities between impeachment and the death penalty.
Let’s instead focus on the crux of her argument. As Haley sees it, Trump may have held up congressionally approved military aid to a vulnerable ally, as part of an abusive extortion scheme, but Ukraine ended up getting the money, so … no harm, no foul, right? Just like the car thief who didn’t successfully steal the car, the Republican president didn’t permanently deny the ally the support in exchange for manufactured dirt on a domestic opponent.
After a Fox News personality recently made the same pitch, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) described the argument as “totally bananas,” and it’s worth appreciating why.
It’s hard to even know where to start. Should we begin by pointing out that Trump’s extortion scheme was only aborted because the White House got caught? Or perhaps with the fact that Trump’s decision to delay congressionally approved aid to a vulnerable ally was itself a legally dubious abuse?
Or how about the fact that people involved in failed crimes – such as the aforementioned car thief – are still subject to punishments and penalties?
Indeed, consider Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, which began in earnest with the arrest of the Watergate burglars in June 1972. The five men arrested were caught with, among other things, electronic listening devices, which they intended to use to bug the DNC’s offices in the building.
They failed, got caught, and were taken into custody.
It didn’t occur to Nixon’s political allies to argue that the burglars’ efforts were unimportant because they didn’t successfully bug then-DNC chair Lawrence O’Brien’s office.