Everyone knew that the impeachment trial of Donald Trump would result in a whitewashing of the U.S. President’s attempt to extort a foreign leader into interfering with the 2020 election.
And it was apparent from the start that Republicans in the Senate would use their majority to acquit their leader, an outcome that could happen as soon as Friday.
But what no one saw coming was that one of the arguments made by Mr. Trump’s lawyers would move the United States in a dangerous direction – toward advocacy of lawlessness in the highest office, and the conflation of a president’s personal interests with those of the public.
According to Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard University law professor on Mr. Trump’s defence team, a president who tries to rig a vote isn’t breaking the law, as long as he firmly believes his re-election is in the public interest.
“Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Mr. Dershowitz told the Senate on Wednesday. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected, in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment."
It’s an absurd and abhorrent argument. But if Mr. Trump is acquitted as expected, it will stand as a precedent for future presidents.
They, too, will be able to argue that pressuring a foreign government to help ensure their re-election is okay.
Mr. Dershowitz’s broader point was that presidents routinely base foreign-policy decisions on how those decisions will affect their chances of re-election.
Fair enough. But that’s a far cry from a president secretly trying to use tax dollars to coerce a foreign power into actively increasing his re-election chances.
Mr. Trump is facing removal from office for pressing the newly elected President of Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election in exchange for the release of much-needed military aid, and for trying to obstruct Congress’s investigation into the matter.
Mr. Trump wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce that his officials were investigating corruption charges against Joe Biden, one of Mr. Trump’s potential Democratic opponents in the U.S. election in November.
There were no grounds for such an investigation. But the President wanted to use the Ukrainian statement to hammer away at Mr. Biden on the campaign trail.
The White House, Republican Congress members and Mr. Trump’s lawyers originally argued that the President never demanded a quid pro quo from Mr. Zelensky.
But evidence to the contrary keeps surfacing – up to and including recent claims by John Bolton, Mr. Trump’s National Security Adviser from April, 2018 to September, 2019, that the President explicitly linked military aid to his demand that the Ukraine government investigate Mr. Biden.
That required a switch in tactics. Republican Senators are expected to block attempts to call Mr. Bolton as a witness, and to try to end the trial as quickly as possible.
And Mr. Trump’s lawyers are arguing that, even if their client did demand a quid pro quo, in which the quo was secretly extorting a foreign actor into interfering in an ongoing election campaign, that’s not an abuse of power, because Mr. Trump’s believes his re-election is in the public interest.
This is a perversion of democracy. Mr. Trump’s legal team is pushing a monomaniacal version of the “public interest” argument used by authoritarians, such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, to justify rigged elections and brutal repression designed to keep them in power.
It’s not for Mr. Trump, or Republicans in the Senate, to decide that his re-election is so critical to the public interest that he can abuse his power to remain in office. A democratic system breaks down if office-holders come to believe that they are free to abuse the public trust for private benefit.
If Mr. Trump actually understood the public interest and the needs of his country, he might well do what Richard Nixon did when he saw that the evidence of abuse of power was stacked against him, and that the country was bitterly divided over his presidency. He would resign.
Instead, he is being emboldened by a Republican Party that has become his creature, and is positioning their President as someone above the law.
L’état, c’est Trump?