“Do these actions rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors necessary to justify the most obviously anti-democratic act the Senate can engage in — overturning an election by convicting the president?” In 1999, then-Sen. Joe Biden answered his own question by voting against removing President Bill Clinton from office.
It is this constitutionally grounded framework — articulated well by Biden — that guided my review of President Donald Trump’s impeachment and, ultimately, my decision to oppose his removal.
House Democrats’ impeachment articles allege that President Trump briefly paused aid, and withheld a White House meeting with Ukraine’s president, to pressure Ukraine into investigating two publicly reported corruption matters. The first matter was possible Ukrainian interference in our 2016 election. The second was Biden’s role in firing the controversial Ukrainian prosecutor investigating a company on whose board Biden’s son sat. When House Democrats demanded witnesses and documents concerning the president’s conduct, he invoked constitutional rights and resisted their demands.
The president’s actions were not “perfect.” Some were inappropriate. But the question before the Senate is not whether his actions were perfect. It is whether they constitute impeachable offenses that justify removing a sitting president from office for the first time and forbidding him from seeking office again.
Let’s consider the case against President Trump: obstruction of Congress and abuse of power. On obstruction, House Democrats allege the president lacked “lawful cause or excuse” to resist their subpoenas. This ignores that his resistance was based on constitutionally grounded legal defenses and immunities that are consistent with long-standing positions taken by administrations of both parties. Instead of negotiating a resolution or litigating in court, House Democrats rushed to impeach. But as House Democrats noted during the Clinton impeachment, a president’s defense of his legal and constitutional rights and responsibilities is not an impeachable offense.
House Democrats separately allege President Trump abused his power by conditioning a White House meeting, and the release of aid, on Ukraine agreeing to pursue corruption investigations. Their case rests entirely on the faulty claim that the only possible motive for his actions was his personal political gain. In fact, there are also legitimate national interests for seeking investigations into apparent corruption, especially when taxpayer dollars are involved.
Here is what ultimately occurred: President Trump met with Ukraine’s president and the aid was released after a brief pause. These actions happened without Ukraine announcing or conducting investigations. The idea that President Trump committed an impeachable offense by meeting with Ukraine’s president at the United Nations in New York instead of Washington, D.C. is absurd. Moreover, the pause in aid did not hinder Ukraine’s ability to combat Russia. In fact, as witnesses in the House stated, U.S. policy supporting Ukraine is stronger under President Trump than under President Barack Obama.
Even if House Democrats’ presumptions about President Trump’s motives are true, additional witnesses in the Senate, beyond the 17 who testified in the House, are unnecessary because the president’s actions do not rise to the level of removing him from office. Nor do they warrant the societal upheaval that would result from his removal from office and the ballot months before an election. Our country is already far too divided, and this would only make matters worse.
As Biden also stated during President Clinton’s trial, “the Constitution sets the bar for impeachment very high.” A president can only be impeached and removed for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” While there’s debate about the precise meaning of “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” it’s clear that impeachable conduct must be comparable to the serious offenses of treason and bribery.
The Constitution sets the impeachment bar so high for good reasons. Removing a president from office, and forbidding him from seeking future office, overturns the results of the last election and denies Americans the right to vote for him in the next one. The Senate’s impeachment power essentially allows 67 senators to substitute their judgment for the judgment of millions of Americans.
The framework Biden articulated in 1999 for judging an impeachment was right then, and it is right now. President Trump’s conduct does not meet the very high bar required to justify overturning the election, removing him from office, and kicking him off the ballot in an election that has already begun. In November, the American people will decide for themselves whether President Trump should stay in office. In our democratic system, that’s the way it should be.
U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey is a Republican from Pennsylvania.