History will remember Wednesday as the day a United States ambassador testified under oath before Congress and laid out a clear, simple and damning case that President Trump abused the power of his office and committed bribery, an act for which the Constitution leaves but one outcome.
The evidence was already overwhelming, but now there can be no question about it: Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s testimony was the smoking gun.
This is largely because the facts presented are simple. At the direction of Trump and Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, United States officials communicated to the government of Ukraine that a White House visit for the new Ukrainian president was contingent on the Ukrainian president publicly announcing investigations into the dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory about the 2016 elections. Later, a congressionally appropriated $391 million military aid package was added to the leverage.
Sondland, a Trump appointee, testified under oath that there was an explicit quid pro quo at the direction of President Trump, through Giuliani. The facts are not meaningfully in dispute, because Sondland’s testimony corroborates the accounts of multiple strong and reliable witnesses.
Sondland made clear that there are even more people and additional documents that could corroborate his testimony, but the White House is blocking their release. The absence of these additional documents and witnesses makes it abundantly clear that the administration is obstructing Congress.
Trump demanded something of value — the announcement of investigations into his political rivals — for his personal benefit, in exchange for President Trump’s performance of official acts: both hosting a White House meeting and, as Sondland came to believe, releasing the security aid
Sondland is not some Democratic Party plant; he is hardly, as the president and his allies have accused others of being, a “Never Trumper.” Wednesday’s testimony came from a political supporter and appointee of the president.
In a few bombshell exchanges, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and the committee’s Democratic counsel, Daniel Goldman, had Sondland walk the public through each element of the federal bribery statute.
Trump demanded something of value — the announcement of investigations into his political rivals — for his personal benefit, in exchange for President Trump’s performance of official acts: both hosting a White House meeting and, as Sondland came to believe, releasing the security aid.
Violating the bribery statute
That President Trump used his personal lawyer as a go-between to funnel these demands to Ambassador Sondland and the Ukrainians does not protect the president. President Trump’s conduct in Ukraine very likely violates the bribery statute.
Bribery is one of the Constitution’s specific prohibitions on executive conduct, second only to treason as a reason for impeaching a president. And constitutional bribery is defined more broadly than the statute — the Constitution was written well before the federal bribery statute and was meant to capture a host of executive malfeasance that might not be captured within the narrow confines of our specific federal laws.
As the impeachment proceedings move forward, Congress must consider the foundational precept of the US republic: that the government and its institutions of diplomacy and law enforcement function at the behest and for the benefit of the people of the United States — rather than a powerful individual or a foreign government.
There is now little doubt that President Trump and his associates could face federal indictment for this scheme, if and when there is a Justice Department committed to fully and fairly consider it. But the operative question facing the US, is whether the president should be allowed to continue serving in an office of public trust.
To call for the removal of a president is not something that should be done easily. The actions of the president must be so unforgivable, the abuses of power so heinous, that it is the only option for the good of the nation. In this case, it is.
There are many pundits who will opine that removing a president is divisive and unprecedented. It is true that no president has ever been removed from office through the impeachment process. But that just speaks to how rare it has been for a president to even get to the point we are at now.
And while it is certainly true that there are people who would be upset by his removal from office, the far greater risk lies in allowing this president, with this explicitly illegal track record of abusing the power of his office for his personal electoral benefit, to participate in future elections. Doing so would deprive the people of their constitutional right to choose their leader in a free, open and fair election.
Congress faces the uncomfortable duty to act to redeem the presidency by no longer allowing it to remain in this condition.
There can be no question that the only action left for patriotic Americans is to call for the impeachment of Trump.
— New York Times News Service
Noah Bookbinder is a former federal prosecutor. He is currently the Executive Director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington DC.