On July 25, President Donald Trump picked up the phone in the White House residence and attempted to shake down a foreign leader.
Trump’s language was elliptical and soft, not direct and threatening, but his intentions were clear: He wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to “do us a favor.” That was Trump’s entree to his improper, indecent requests that Zelenskiy’s government undertake two investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
Trump didn’t explain his motives, which of course were self-serving. First, he asked Zelenskiy to “find out what happened” with Ukraine’s supposed meddling, alongside Russia, in the 2016 U.S. election. Then there was Trump’s “other thing”: his desire that Ukraine “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 rival, and Biden’s son Hunter over their activities in Ukraine. “I’m sure you will figure it out,” Trump told Zelenskiy at one point in their conversation, as if to let dangle the potential consequences of ignoring the American president’s desires.
We know Trump was trying to squeeze Zelenskiy because a rough transcript of that phone call is a major piece of evidence in the Democrat-led House impeachment inquiry. The investigation, launched by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, connects enough dots: Trump was willing to hold for ransom a White House visit by Zelenskiy, the newly elected leader of a country that desperately needs American support in its confrontation with Russia. The inquiry also heard evidence that Trump may have suspended $400 million in military aid to Ukraine during the summer as further inducement to get what he desired.
For Trump to coerce a foreign leader into doing his political dirty work is an indisputable abuse of U.S. presidential power. The fact that Zelenskiy evidently never started the investigations, while the military aid was released to his country, does not excuse Trump’s misdeed. We do not see clear-cut evidence Trump violated any law. Instead, he committed the offense of using public office for personal political gain.
Removal from office is the gravest action Congress can take to punish a president. To impeach and expel represents the overturning of an election, and thus the effective suspension of our democratic system due to dire emergency. In its 243-year history, the United States has never impeached and removed a president. For Congress to take the decision of who leads the nation out of the voters’ hands would be to change the course of American history in unpredictable ways.
In our view, Trump’s Ukraine misdeeds are a serious abuse of his office. But they do not meet those tests of an impeachable offense.
The option we see more fitting to address Trump’s abuse of power is for both houses of Congress to censure him. We do not envision a weak-kneed admonishment that Trump can dismiss. A resolution of censure would spell out in detail the president’s betrayal of trust and his failure of responsibilities by placing his personal political interests above his obligations to the nation. This resolution could adopt the language that could otherwise appear in articles of impeachment.
Censure does something else important. It ensures that final judgment of Trump’s misdeeds remains where it should be, with the American people on Election Day 2020. That is barely 11 months hence. At that time, voters will have the opportunity to expel him.
— Chicago Tribune