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The Realist Case for Impeachment

The U.S. president needs the public’s trust to conduct foreign policy. Donald Trump has forfeited it.

U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on Jan. 19, 2018 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump stands in the colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders in the Rose Garden at the White House on Jan. 19, 2018 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

States live in a world of anarchy, where no agency or institution exists to protect them from one another. As the political scientist John Mearsheimer likes to say, “ If a state gets into trouble in the international system, it can’t dial 911.” For this reason, realists view international politics as a “self-help” system, where each state has to rely on its own resources and strategies to survive. To put it more simply, it’s a jungle out there, and a state that wants to be secure often needs a strong, vigorous, and agile leadership that can do what needs to be done to keep the country safe.

That’s why U.S. President Donald Trump must be impeached.

Wait a second: Doesn’t foreign-policy realism suggest the opposite? In a dangerous world, shouldn’t Americans give the president the benefit of the doubt, so that he is free to conduct an active and vigilant foreign policy? And wouldn’t Americans be better off avoiding a constitutional crisis, which will only distract and divide them further and make life easier for their enemies?

No and no. Let me explain.

The Founding Fathers understood that we live in a dangerous world. The 13 original colonies were weak and highly vulnerable, and their recognition of the need for greater unity and governmental authority eventually led them to abandon the original Articles of Confederation and devise what is now the U.S. Constitution. They gave Congress the power to declare war, raise armies, and provide for other aspects of national defense, but they gave the president, as the head of the executive branch, authority over most aspects of foreign affairs. It is the president who appoints ambassadors, negotiates treaties, deals directly with other heads of state, and is ultimately responsible for orchestrating the government’s policies toward friends and foes alike.

Over the past two centuries, and especially since World War II, presidents from both parties have gradually taken over more and more authority in this realm. Facing the Soviet threat, as well as the imminent dangers posed by the nuclear revolution, the United States established and maintained a vast military and intelligence establishment and took on more and more responsibilities around the globe. Not surprisingly, presidents from both parties sought and generally received the right to conduct a great deal of foreign policy in secret, ostensibly for the sake of national security.

Not surprisingly, most if not all post-World War II presidents have used the national security privilege to deflect awkward or politically potent inquiries into their own conduct. There’s also no question that the classification system has run amok—even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld complained about it—leading to enormous inefficiencies and encouraging a proliferation of leaks.

But as my colleague Jack Goldsmith recently argued, one area where presidents deserve a great deal of confidentiality is their private, one-on-one dealings with foreign leaders. In a dangerous world, we have to permit presidents (or their appointed representatives) to conduct candid conversations with adversaries or allies about highly sensitive topics—including issues involving war and peace—without worrying that the content of their conversations will end up on the front page of the New York Times.

But granting any president this level of trust—again, on the grounds that such latitude is necessary to preserve national security in a dangerous world—critically depends on a minimal level of presidential integrity. Americans must be confident that a president’s dealings with foreign powers are intended to advance the broad national interest and not their own private ends. We can disagree with how a president is handling relations with another country or another world leader, but we have to be confident—not just hopeful but confident—that they are doing what they think is best for the country and are not just out for themselves.

Trump has been flaunting his disregard for this principle since day one of his presidency. He refused to divest himself of his real estate business and has openly advertised on its behalf at least 70 times since taking the oath of office. He has spent part of at least 378 days of his presidency at one of his properties (usually a golf resort), costing taxpayers millions of dollars. Foreign governments seeking to curry favor with the president have spent millions of dollars at Trump properties since his inauguration, while his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. burn up more money on Secret Service protection while they fly around doing Trump Organization business.

Foreign governments have been quick to discern this part of the president’s agenda. As the memo reconstructing details of Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reveals, foreign leaders understand that flattering Trump and slipping the Trump Organization a few bucks is one way to get on his good side. So Zelensky is quick to tell Trump that he stayed at the Trump Tower when he was in New York, hoping this bit of kiss-up will win the president’s favor. All it did, of course, was line Trump’s pockets a bit more.

But now Trump has taken this sleaziness to the next level. Even a charitable reading of the whistleblower report and the White House’s own reconstructed text of the phone call with Zelensky show that Trump was trying to use the promise of U.S. military aid to Ukraine to extract “a favor” (his own words) from the Ukrainian president. What was the favor? Was it closer strategic cooperation against U.S. adversaries? More intelligence-sharing that might be useful for counterterrorism efforts, or to counter money laundering, sex trafficking, or other crimes? Support for some new foreign-policy initiative that might make the United States safer?

None of the above. The conversation makes clear that Trump wasn’t interested (or even all that well informed) about Ukraine’s internal politics, its conflict with Russia, its prospects for economic development, or any of the normal things a U.S. president might address. What Trump wanted—and what his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had been pursuing for some time—was some dirt he could use in case he faced Joe Biden in the 2020 election, even though the Ukrainian government had already determined that no such dirt existed. Tellingly, Trump doesn’t tell Zelensky to work more closely with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the national security advisor, or the Department of Defense; instead, he repeatedly tells him to cooperate with Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr, and asks him to investigate Biden and the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike (the object of a right-wing conspiracy theory about the hack of the Democratic National Committee servers in the 2016 campaign). To put it bluntly: He wanted a foreign government to help him get reelected.

Reasonable people can disagree about what U.S. policy toward Ukraine should be, but what it shouldn’t be is a shakedown scheme in which a sitting U.S. president tries to get a foreign power to invent a scandal that might help that president’s reelection chances. Any president who would do that (and whose appointees would go along with it) has forfeited any claim to public trust.

Very importantly, the issue is not whether Trump has broken any specific U.S. law. As the political scientist Corey Brettschneider points out, the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution says provide grounds for impeachment “is a category found nowhere in criminal law. The framers meant something broader: a demeaning or undermining of the office. High crimes are actions that abuse the public’s trust in the president. Of course, legal crimes can also be high crimes; stealing money from the public treasury is both illegal and impeachable. But a president does not need to break the law to commit a high crime.”

Make no mistake: this issue is not about whether you agree with Trump’s handling of foreign policy. Every previous president has made foreign-policy mistakes, and some of them were real doozies. George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was a colossal blunder, Barack Obama erred when he helped topple Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Bill Clinton blew it when he rejected Partnership for Peace and opted for full-on NATO expansion or when he fired cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. But there’s no evidence that any of them made these decisions to feather their own nests or to tip an election with bogus charges. The closest equivalent that I can think of is Richard Nixon’s efforts to sabotage the Vietnam peace talks in 1968 so that progress at the talks wouldn’t give an edge to Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey. Tricky Dick wasn’t president yet, however, and we all know how his presidency eventually turned out.

Remarkably, Trump is now leaving Nixon in the dust. As a private citizen he ran a crooked business, and it’s been clear for a while that he’s running a crooked presidency. He cannot be trusted with the authority of the presidency and the privilege of confidentiality that managing the nation’s foreign and national security policy requires. Why? Because every time he meets with a foreign leader, we won’t know if he is genuinely trying to advance the national interest or just trying to cut a sleazy deal to help himself. Now, his insistence on meeting with leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin without any aides present takes on an even more ominous light.

There is a second realist reason to favor impeachment. Because no single person is infallible, it is essential to debate policy options openly and to assess the results as honestly as possible. When leaders make mistakes—as all of them will from time to time—open societies with open access to information and debate are more likely to spot the errors and come up with alternatives. In a dictatorship like Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, by contrast, catastrophic policies can continue for years, because no one can tell the tyrant he’s wrong. Trump isn’t a dictator (though he might like to be), but he has consistently shown a deep hostility toward the core institutions that make democracy work. He denounces journalists with the Stalinist phrase “enemies of the people,” directs his aides to ignore lawful congressional subpoenas, and now hints that the whistleblower who reported his malfeasance was “close to a spy” and might deserve execution. This worldview is well suited to a dysfunctional dictatorship, but not to a republic whose decisions about war and peace could affect the lives of millions of people.

Why favor impeachment now, given that Trump’s deficiencies of character have been apparent for some time? Because impeachment is a political act, and the Framers made it hard to get the votes to do it because they understood the risks of making it too easy. Impeachment is moving forward because the whistleblower’s report is a transparent case of Trump using his office and his control over policy to try to extract a personal favor. The White House staff immediately realized what he had done, so they tried to cover it up. The clarity of this episode—as opposed to the murky complexities of the Mueller report—has shifted the political balance. Among other things, it led more than 300 national security professionals—men and women who have served both Republican and Democratic administrations—to issue a public statement endorsing impeachment.

The bottom line is now clear. Whether you are a Democrat, a Republican, or an independent, you cannot trust Donald Trump to place the interests of the nation ahead of his own, or to conduct a foreign policy that would faithfully advance the national interest. In the realist world in which we live, a world where even the mighty United States sometimes faces genuine dangers, that is not a risk any of us should be forced to run. That is why Trump should be impeached and eventually removed from the presidency.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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