A weekly window on the American political scene hosted by the Monitor's politics editors.

What constitutes 'impeachable' conduct?

Why We Wrote This

Ultimately, a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate will get to define what’s impeachable – and that may hinge on a number of factors.

Samuel Corum/AP
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, questions Gordon Sondland, US Ambassador to the European Union, during a House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.

Dear reader:

What constitutes an impeachable offense?

In the wake of last week’s hearings, some Trump defenders have been arguing that while the president’s interactions with Ukraine may not have been “perfect,” none of it rises to the level of impeachment.

Retiring GOP Rep. Will Hurd – a moderate Texan who’s been willing to criticize the president – called Mr. Trump’s July 25th phone conversation with the president of Ukraine “inappropriate,” but said “an impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelming, clear and unambiguous.” In his view, the evidence presented so far does not meet that standard.

Likewise, “President Donald Trump has not been credibly accused of committing any crime, much less a high crime or misdemeanor,” writes The Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway – implying that impeachable offenses should be above and beyond basic criminality.

Notably, Democrats have begun talking about “bribery” rather than a “quid pro quo” – bribery being “one of only two specific impeachable offenses listed in the Constitution (the other being treason),” as Jeff Greenfield points out in The Bulwark. Yet Mr. Greenfield also argues that Republicans are incorrect to insist an act must be criminal to be impeachable. He points out that it’s not hard to come up with hypothetical situations that would not be criminal yet would clearly merit impeachment, just as it’s possible to envision scenarios where a crime technically was committed that no one would see as necessitating a response. 

Ultimately, what’s impeachable is whatever a majority of the House and two-thirds of the Senate think is impeachable.

And often, that may have as much to do with the bigger picture as with the incident at hand. The New York Times’s Ross Douthat argues persuasively that the reason President Bill Clinton may have survived his impeachment process while President Richard Nixon did not was not simply because of different degrees of malfeasance involved – or even different degrees of partisanship. No, what may have mattered most was that President Nixon’s second term featured “a series of economic shocks” – including an oil crisis, stock market crash, stagflation, and a recession – while President Clinton’s was a “peak of American power, pride and optimism.”

If “impeachable” is in the eye of the beholder, then the strength of today’s economy may be providing a lens that is more helpful to Mr. Trump than anything else.

Let us know what you’re thinking at csmpolitics@csmonitor.com.

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