This controversy is really two disputes. One is legal and procedural, regarding the executive branch’s decision to withhold the whistleblower’s complaint from Congress. The other dispute is substantive and perhaps constitutional, over the propriety of what Mr. Trump has all but admitted he discussed with the Ukrainian president.
As to the first dispute, Robert Litt, who served as General Counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence during the Obama administration, has lucidly laid out the legal complexities. In an article for Lawfare, he concludes that “the argument that the law did not require the DNI to transmit the [whistleblower’s] complaint to Congress . . . is not a frivolous one.” Moreover, if the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel determined that the president’s actions weren’t matters of urgent concern as defined in the federal law for intelligence whistleblowers, the DNI might well feel bound to block the transmission of the complaint.
Mr. Litt points out that the intelligence community’s inspector general also sought permission to transmit the complaint to congressional intelligence committees for reasons unrelated to the whistleblower law, and was told that executive privilege would preclude this action. Starting with George Washington, there is a long tradition of presidents declining to reveal the contents of their communications with foreign leaders. Here, as in so many instances, President Trump has violated the norms that sustain our constitutional order while adhering to the forms.
I confess that when I heard the first reports about Mr. Trump’s conversation with the Ukrainian leader, it struck me as a scene from a mob movie: Nice little country you have here, Mr. Zelensky. It’d be a shame if anything happened to it. But as former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti has argued, the president’s conduct doesn’t fit comfortably within statutory definitions of bribery or extortion. Besides, presidents often use levers of power, including foreign assistance, to induce other leaders to act in ways they might prefer not to.
The real offense is distorting U.S. foreign policy to improve Mr. Trump’s re-election chances, which he and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, appear to have done. If so, this would violate the spirit of the oath Mr. Trump swore when he assumed the presidency. Because the courts offer no prospect of remedy, many representatives believe that impeachment is the only recourse, and also their duty. Speaker Pelosi’s announcement is the first step down this road.
Although I respect their motives, I disagree: Impeachment is a constitutional option, not a constitutional obligation. It is, in the broadest sense, a political act, and therefore is subject to political tests of feasibility and efficacy.
There is no evidence that impeaching the president would lead to his removal from office, which would require the consent of 20 Republican senators. (As this article went to press, exactly one— Mitt Romney of Utah—had expressed strong concern about the president’s conduct in the Ukrainian controversy.) Nor is there any evidence that impeaching the president would increase Democrats’ odds of defeating him in the election. Judging by public opinion, the reverse seems more likely.
On the other hand, inaction isn’t an option because it would have the effect of normalizing presidential conduct that is anything but normal—and accepting the unacceptable as a fait accompli. This presents a dilemma for Democrats, many of whom believe that there are only two paths—impeaching the president or doing nothing.
Fortunately for them and for the country, there is a third choice, provided by law: a resolution formally censuring the president. There is precedent. In 1834 the Senate censured President Andrew Jackson for withholding documents related to his defunding the Bank of the United States, one of the most hotly disputed decisions of his presidency.
The House should use the impeachment inquiry to develop the factual basis for a comprehensive bill of particulars against President Trump—an enumeration of his most egregious affronts to the spirit of the laws and the Constitution, and to the honor and dignity of the office he holds. They should pass this bill as a formal motion of censure. And then the Democrats should take their case to the ultimate judges in our republic, the people themselves, for a final decision in November 2020. The Senate will not remove the president from office; only the people can.
If inaction is dishonorable and impeachment futile, censure is the only course that makes both moral and political sense.
Everyone has a code of conduct, whether explicit or unacknowledged. Nearly halfway into President Trump’s first term—which some people hope and others fear will be his only one—the contours of his code have become pretty clear.
Mr. Trump has a consistent way of judging people. Strong is good, weak is bad. Big is impressive, small is defective: “Little Marco.” Winners are admirable, while losers are contemptible. A corollary is that there is neither dishonorable victory nor honorable defeat, which is why Mr. Trump poured scorn during his candidacy on John McCain for having been captured—never mind McCain’s heroic conduct as a prisoner of war.Individuals are either attractive or unattractive. If they don’t look good, it doesn’t much matter what they say or do. Appearance is reality: Plato’s Cave inverted. This is why Mr. Trump’s TV stardom mattered more than his checkered business career.
Finally, people are either loyal or disloyal. Loyalty in this case means their willingness to defend Mr. Trump, whatever the cost to their own interests or reputation. In this vein, Mr. Trump favorably compared former Attorney General Eric Holder’s unswerving support for President Obama with Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia probe.
This brings us to the next feature of Mr. Trump’s personal code—his distinctive understanding of how the world works. Here’s how it goes.
With the possible exception of family, all relationships are at bottom transactional. Every man has a price, and so does every woman.
There’s money, and then everything else. Money and morals are unrelated. Even if a Saudi leader ordered the assassination and dismemberment of a prominent dissident, this is no reason to halt arms sales to the monarchy. If American firms don’t get the contracts, someone else will. Why should we be chumps? If promoting democracy or simple decency costs money, what’s the point?
The core of human existence is competition, not cooperation. The world is zero-sum: If I win, someone else must lose. I can either bend another to my will or yield to his.
The division between friends and enemies is fundamental. We should do as much good as we can to our friends, and as much harm to our enemies.
This brings us to President Trump’s handbook of tactics we should employ to achieve our goals:
Rule 1: The end always justifies the means. Asked whether he had spoken disrespectfully about Christine Blasey Ford, he said, “I’m not going to get into it, because we won. It doesn’t matter; we won.” Case closed.
Rule 2: No matter the truth of accusations against you, deny everything. Bob Woodward’s recent book quotes Mr. Trump counseling a friend who had privately confessed to sexual-misconduct charges against him. “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny, and push back hard on these women,” says Mr. Trump. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.” The corollary to Rule 2 is that the best defense is a good offense. As the president told his friend, “You’ve got to be strong. You’ve got to be aggressive. Never admit.”
Rule 3: Responding to criticism on its merits is pointless. Instead, challenge the motives and character of your critics. Their criticism isn’t sincere anyway: It’s all politics, the unending quest for dominance. If ridicule works, use it, even if it means caricaturing your adversaries by reducing them to their weakest trait. If Jeb Bush is “low energy,” who cares what he thinks about immigration?
Rule 4: To win, you must arouse your supporters, and deepening divisions is the surest way to do it. Even if compromise could solve important problems, reject it whenever it threatens to reduce the fervor of your base. No gain in the public good is important enough to justify the loss of power.
Rule 5: It is wonderful to be loved, but if you must choose, it is better to be feared than loved. The desire for love puts you at the mercy of those who can withhold it; creating fear puts you on offense. You cannot control love, but you can control fear. And this is the ultimate question of politics, indeed, of all human life: Who’s in control?
Defenders of President Trump’s code of conduct will point to what they see as its unsentimental realism. His maxims are the terms of effectiveness in the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. They may not be pretty, but they work. Politics is not like figure skating. You get no points for style. You either get your way or you don’t. Nothing else matters.
Critics of Mr. Trump’s code—I’m one of them—view the distinction between permissible and forbidden means as essential to constitutional democracy, and to all decent politics. What Mr. Trump’s supporters see as the restoration of national greatness, his critics see as the acceleration of national decline.
This, to no small extent, is what next month’s elections are really about.
More than two decades ago, Harvard economist Dani Rodrik warned that globalization was driving a wedge between workers who had the skills and mobility to prosper in the global economy and those who did not. The key challenge, he argued, was to make globalization “compatible with domestic social and political stability”—that is, to ensure that international economic integration “does not contribute to domestic social disintegration.”
.. International trade weakens the postwar social contract between American employers and their workers. Less-skilled workers often are forced to accept lower wages, inferior benefits and diminished job security. Leading economists acknowledged that increased trade with lower-wage countries would widen the gap between highly skilled and less-skilled workers in advanced economies, but they played down the magnitude of these effects.
.. China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Yes, China had a large state-owned sector, used public resources to encourage the private economy, and broadly subsidized its producers. But over time, the thinking went, the communists would see the folly of propping up inefficient producers. The state sector would shrink, and the market would become more powerful. China’s economy would converge with the Western model, and its political institutions eventually would evolve too.
.. automation—not protectionism—is the key to the future.
His weekend Twitter outburst calls into question his ability to discharge his powers.
President Trump’s out-of-control weekend Twitter storm has raised these concerns to new heights. Our European allies no longer know what to believe. “Is it deeds? Is it words? Is it tweets?” asked Germany’s foreign minister at the annual Munich Security Conference. While senior administration officials offered reaffirmations of traditional American positions, our allies did not know whether they were speaking for the president and if so, for how long.
We know what is required of every American citizen. It is enshrined in the oath that every naturalized citizen must take—to “defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Surely no less is required of the president. But when his own national security adviser stated that “the evidence is now incontrovertible” that Russia worked to undermine our most basic constitutional processes during the past election, Mr. Trump slapped him down with a tendentious tweet.
He has repeatedly chosen to take the word of Vladimir Putin, the autocratic ruler of Russia and a former KGB agent, over the judgment of the entire U.S. intelligence community.
Mr. Putin’s Russia, which is waging war in Eastern Europe and propping up Bashar Assad in Syria, has become an enemy of the U.S. Can any fair-minded person say that the president is doing what he should to defend our Constitution and laws against this threat?
.. President Trump regards any affirmation of Russian electoral influence as an attack on the legitimacy of his 2016 victory. He cannot distinguish between the national interest and his own insecurities, making it impossible for him to acknowledge the nature of the Russian threat.
.. It is time for the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, and the national security adviser to confront Mr. Trump, collectively and directly, to inform him that unless he publicly affirms the reality of the Russian threat and authorizes the strongest possible response to it, they will have no honorable alternative to resignation. They swore an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, not to Mr. Trump.
.. With Mr. Trump, we face the incapacitation of character—an inability to master his passions sufficiently to distinguish between the country’s well-being and his fathomless self-regard.
.. The Americans who supported Mr. Trump in 2016 had genuine grievances that both parties had neglected for far too long.
But he is a deeply, dangerously flawed instrument of their purposes. In choosing him, they made a mistake that threatens America and the world.