Ask the typical American what the Constitution says about impeachment, and you’ll likely hear a familiar phrase: “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution actually says a little more than that.
It reads, “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
With this in mind, note the phrasing House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) used yesterday during an interview with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, as the Democratic leader described Donald Trump’s scheme to trade military aid to Ukraine for investigations into his political rivals.
“Bribery, first of all, as the founders understood bribery, it was not as we understand it in law today. It was much broader,” Schiff said. “It connoted the breach of the public trust in a way where you’re offering official acts for some personal or political reason, not in the nation’s interest.”
To prove bribery, Schiff said, you have to show that the president was “soliciting something of value,” which Schiff thinks multiple witnesses before his committee have testified to in private.
Similarly the New York Times reported overnight that a top Democratic official said today’s witnesses – William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, a senior State Department official – “would lay out a timeline of serious misconduct by Mr. Trump and describe how the president sought to ‘bribe, extort, condition or coerce’ the leader of another country.”
At some level, this may seem like a debate over semantics, but don’t be too quick to dismiss the significance of the nomenclature.
When the scandal first started coming into focus, the dominant phrase was “quid pro quo” – something the White House and its Republican allies insisted did not exist in this instance, and was a standard they said needed to be met in order for the controversy to be meaningful. GOP officials promptly changed their minds about this once evidence of Team Trump’s quid-pro-quo scheme emerged.
But the utility of the Latin phrase is limited, in part because much of the public is unfamiliar with it, and in part because it’s incomplete, failing to fully capture the scope and scale of the alleged corruption. I’ve been partial toward “extortion” since it seems far more accurate: Trump essentially told Ukraine that he intended to hurt the country’s national security needs unless his political and parochial demands were met.
“It’s a nice military aid package we have here with your name on it,” the Republican effectively told his counterpart in Kyiv. “It’d be a shame if something happened to it.”
But Schiff’s reference to “bribery” yesterday goes a step further, suggesting there’s a case to be made that Trump was soliciting a bribe by extortion.
As the proceedings in the House get underway, keep an eye on this angle.
Postscript: A couple of months ago, as the scandal was taking shape, Ian Millhiser wrote a good piece on the possible crimes committed through the Ukraine scheme, and it included a section on Trump’s actions possibly constituting bribery, even under the narrow definition recently adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court.