We are in the midst of a difficult and dangerous period. Over the past two years, I have been a conservative on impeachment. One of my heroes is William Pitt Fessenden, a Maine senator just after the Civil War who cast one of the deciding votes against the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. (This vote, which ended Fessenden’s political career, was featured in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage”). He believed then (as I do now) that overturning the results of an election should be an absolute last resort and should not be based upon policy or political differences between the Congress and the president.
But when a sitting president admits to using the power of his office to openly solicit the engagement of a foreign government in his re-election campaign (From the call record released by the White House: President Volodymyr Zelinsky —“We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins [anti-tank missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.” President Donald Trump — “I would like you to do us a favor though…”), it’s hard to argue that beginning a formal process to get all the facts is unjustified.
Just in the first week of the House inquiry, more disturbing facts — and new questions — have arisen. Texts between administration officials suggest the possibility of a pretty explicit quid pro quo, in fact several. They include investigation of Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for military aid, for a call with the president, or for a visit to the White House. Additionally, the role of the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Guliani, and Attorney General William Barr must be examined and clarified. As should the president’s extraordinary public statement requesting that China investigate the Bidens. Such a request to a foreign country with regard to any American citizen would be unusual, but when that American citizen happens to be the son of one of the president’s potential political opponents, the request is less about policy than the personal political interests of the president.
In fact, this entire matter seems to rest upon this president’s inability to distinguish between the national interest and his own personal interest. Only this can explain his continuous characterization of the Zelinsky call as “ perfect,” in spite of his repeated requests that Ukraine investigate his political rival. This also explains his frequent misuse of the word treason, which is defined (in the Constitution itself) as “only in levying war against them [the United States], or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.” Criticism of the president, even strong criticism of the president, or a whistleblower reporting possible wrongdoing by the president, are not treason, they are democracy.
Our entire constitutional system is built upon the principle of checks and balances, expressing in concrete terms the Framers‘ deep concern about the grave dangers of power concentrated in one set of hands. The separation of powers, fixed terms of office, vetoes, Senate confirmation of Cabinet members and judges, ratification of treaties, the power to declare war, and others are all there to ensure that power is shared and that, ultimately, we are protected from those who might abuse the power lent to them by the people. And so it is with impeachment, the ultimate check on a public official’s betrayal of their trust.
As a potential juror in an impeachment trial, I will make my final decision only after weighing the facts and evidence established by the process now underway in the House. Although I believe that this process may well be politically advantageous to the president, it seems to me that those of us who took an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” at this point have no choice but to follow the facts, wherever they may lead.
This is a solemn and historic moment, and it cannot be avoided. As usual, Abraham Lincoln captured the essence of times like these: “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We, of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation.”
Angus King represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.