Trump and the Meaning of Impeachment: My Testimony Before Congress

This article is being published online as special supplement to The New York Review’s December 19 issue. What follows is an expanded form of the testimony delivered to the House Judiciary Committee on December 4, 2019.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
Donald Trump at a rally in Minneapolis, October 2019

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: I’m here today at the request of the Committee to describe why the framers of our Constitution included a provision for impeaching the president; what that provision means; and how it applies to the pressing question before you and the American people: whether President Donald J. Trump has committed impeachable offenses under the Constitution.

I will begin by stating my conclusions:

The framers provided for impeachment of the president because they wanted the president, unlike the king, to be controlled by law, and because they feared that a president might abuse the power of his office to gain personal advantage, corrupt the electoral process, and keep himself in office. “High crimes and misdemeanors” are abuses of power and public trust connected to the office of the presidency. On the basis of the testimony presented to the House Intelligence Committee, President Trump has committed impeachable high crimes and misdemeanors by corruptly abusing the office of the presidency. Specifically, President Trump abused his office by corruptly soliciting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his political rivals in order to gain personal advantage, including in the 2020 presidential election.

I. Why the Framers Provided for Impeachment

The Constitutional Convention opened in late May 1787, when the governor of Virginia, Edmund Randolph, introduced what came to be called the Virginia Plan, a blueprint for the new government that had been designed and written in advance by James Madison. The Virginia Plan mentioned “impeachments of … National officers.”1

On June 2, when the convention was talking about the office of the executive, Hugh Williamson of North Carolina proposed that the executive should be “removable on impeachment and conviction of mal-practice or neglect of duty.”2 The convention agreed and put the words in their working draft.

The framers were borrowing the basic idea of impeachment from the constitutional tradition of England. There, for hundreds of years, Parliament had used impeachment to oversee government officials, remove them from office for abuse of power or corruption, and even punish them.

The biggest difference between the English tradition of impeachment and the American constitutional plan was that the king of England could not be impeached. In that sense, the king was above the law, which only applied to him if he consented to follow it. In stark contrast, the president of the United States would be subject to the law like any other citizen.

The idea of impeachment was therefore absolutely central to the republican form of government ordained by the Constitution. Without impeachment, the president would have been an…

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