Opinion | Who Will Pick the Next President: Trump, Russia or Us?
The report released on Wednesday by the House Intelligence Committee begins with a powerful indictment: “The impeachment inquiry,” the first sentence says, “uncovered a monthslong effort by President Trump to use the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.”
Mentions of the “2020 election” and the president’s re-election campaign can be found scattered throughout the 300-page document. The core message comes through loud and clear: The harm here is not a historical one. This report warns of a future harm: that an American president used his enormous power — and may use it again — to compel a foreign country to alter the outcome of the next presidential election.
We are faced with a direct threat that is unfolding before our eyes. If left unchecked, the president’s abusive behavior stands as a clear and present danger to the future of our democracy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as much on Thursday when she announced that the House Judiciary Committee would begin drafting articles of impeachment. “The facts are uncontested,” Ms. Pelosi said. “The president abused his power for his own personal political benefit, at the expense of our national security.”
Our criminal law has three main goals: to punish a person who has broken the law, to stop that person from causing a current harm and to deter future harm. It is the last goal, and the importance of preventing future wrongdoing, that resonates so clearly in the work of the Intelligence Committee. And it is through Article I of the United States Constitution, which establishes impeachment as the mechanism for holding the president of the United States accountable for criminal conduct or other wrongdoing, that this goal can be achieved.
The Intelligence Committee report sets forth more than just the president’s goal of corruptly influencing the 2020 election. It also presents considerable evidence that Mr. Trump’s efforts to interfere with the 2020 election were willful, knowing and intentional. With meticulous detail, the report catalogs his knowledge of the 2016 Russian interference into the United States election. And it notes that his request for “a favor” from President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine during a July 25 phone call came one day after Robert Mueller, the special counsel, testified before Congress about his investigation into Russian 2016 election interference — testimony that Mr. Trump claimed exonerated him of wrongdoing.
As the report explains, “the solicitation of new foreign intervention was the act of a president unbound, not one chastened by experience. It was the act of a president who viewed himself as unaccountable and determined to use his vast official powers to secure his re-election.”
The impeachment inquiry has largely centered on Mr. Trump. Yet the report makes clear that we should be concerned with more than just his own efforts to alter the 2020 election results.
The Ukraine scheme, while spearheaded by the president, was carried out by numerous senior advisers. The Intelligence Committee paints a vivid picture of an extensive, monthslong, highly coordinated effort to pressure Ukraine that included the president; his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani; his chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney; Vice President Mike Pence; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Energy Secretary Rick Perry; and the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. Their efforts to push Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden and his son Hunter and 2016 election interference had the singular goal of helping President Trump get re-elected in 2020.
Multiple witnesses testified to this before the Intelligence Committee. Ambassador Sondland explained that he negotiated President Zelensky’s agreement to announce “a fully transparent investigation” and to “turn over every stone,” and that Mr. Sondland “understood these phrases to refer to two investigations politically beneficial to the president’s re-election campaign,” the committee’s report says. Mr. Giuliani made numerous public statements and “indicated the president fully supported putting pressure on Ukraine to open investigations that would benefit his 2020 re-election campaign.”
The involvement of these senior officials demonstrates that this scheme was not just about one rogue actor, the president, abusing his authority. It also shows that Mr. Trump corrupted significant agencies of the United States government, including the State Department, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Defense, to work for his personal benefit.
This benefit was, as explained by national security and Europe experts, contrary to the interests and national security of the United States. The official work of these critical agencies, traditionally focused on furthering the interests of the United States, was redirected to further the president’s personal goal of getting political dirt to help in his 2020 re-election campaign.
Democracy requires that we elect our leaders. Sometimes we elect good leaders and sometimes not so good ones. That is our right. It is a right that more than one million service members have fought and died for since the birth of our nation. That is why the Intelligence Committee report should be a wake-up call to all Americans. It raises a simple question: Who gets to pick the next president of the United States — President Trump, Ukraine, Russia or us?
If Congress fails to hold the president accountable for the Ukraine scheme, there will be no way to prevent the future harm of a corrupted election. It’s one thing for our leaders to engage in corruption. It’s an entirely different thing for our elections to be in doubt.
Anne Milgram, a law professor at New York University, is a former federal prosecutor and was attorney general of New Jersey from 2007 to 2010.
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