Today, the Washington Post released what Donald Trump would call a “perfect phone call.” Most other people, though, would call it a high crime and abuse of power. On the call, Trump abused and threatened Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger in an attempt to have him “find” the votes needed to overturn the will of the voters.
The conversation should be listened to in its entirety, but a few key quotes illustrate the severity of the offense:
“The people of Georgia are angry, the people in the country are angry,” he said. “And there’s nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you’ve recalculated.”
Raffensperger responded: “Well, Mr. President, the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong.”
At another point, Trump said: “So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state.”
He also simultaneously threatened the Secretary of State with specious prosecution for not cooperating with his scheme, and treated the public official as if they were part of the same team, or working together on a pseudo-criminal enterprise–a cause to which Raffensberger just hadn’t shown enough commitment:
During their conversation, Trump issued a vague threat to both Raffensperger and Ryan Germany, the secretary of state’s general counsel, suggesting that if they don’t find that thousands of ballots in Fulton County have been illegally destroyed to block investigators — an allegation for which there is no evidence — they would be subject to criminal liability.
“That’s a criminal offense,” he said. “And you can’t let that happen. That’s a big risk to you and to Ryan, your lawyer.”
“You have a big election coming up and because of what you’ve done to the president — you know, the people of Georgia know that this was a scam,” Trump said. “Because of what you’ve done to the president, a lot of people aren’t going out to vote, and a lot of Republicans are going to vote negative, because they hate what you did to the president. Okay? They hate it. And they’re going to vote. And you would be respected, really respected, if this can be straightened out before the election.”
As with so much of Trump’s behavior, it’s difficult to know just how illegal it is, because we often don’t have specific statutes that cover the particular kinds of egregious ethical violations the President is committing. Many experts are thus noting that it may be difficult to prosecute Trump for this behavior. The Post‘s Jennifer Rubin is more sanguine about the potential for prosecution: there is a case to be made that Trump violated laws against depriving citizens of free and fair elections, against extortion of a public official, and exhorting a public official to commit election fraud.
However difficult it might be to prosecute Trump for this as a private citizen, more pointedly this sort of transgression is exactly what impeachment was designed to cover. It is impossible to write laws that might cover all the specific ways that a president might violate their oath of office, abuse their power, or threaten democracy. The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is deliberately vague on purpose.
There is appetite among more progressive members of the House for an impeachment proceeding. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said today that she believes it’s an impeachable offense and that she would be pushing articles of impeachment to floor. And why not? Impeachment would have little legislative or political cost. As David Dayen noted today on twitter:
Nothing of consequence can pass until the Georgia runoffs get certified. Floor time is meaningless. A Democratic party wanting to take advantage of and heighten the fracturing of the opposition would probably impeach Trump again for trying to steal the election.
— David Dayen (@ddayen) January 3, 2021
Of course the Republican Senate would not vote to remove him, and of course Trump is leaving in just two weeks. But there must be some sort of official accountability for this behavior. If neither the Congress nor the criminal courts register any significant objection to it beyond a strongly worded letter, it will happen again and again until a would-be dictator succeeds in destroying what remains of American democracy. Already even Republicans who don’t support rejecting duly appointed electors are suggesting that they might be willing to support Trump’s coup–if it had a better chance of succeeding.
And yes, of course it’s a symbolic mechanism of accountability. But it’s the strongest one available at the moment. It’s better than doing nothing. And Senate Republicans should be put on the record one more time about whether they’re willing to condone and encourage this sort of behavior. Let the voters know exactly where they stand, and let history judge their legacy accordingly.
The House already impeached Trump for one extortionary phone call to a foreign government encouraging a crime. It can and should impeach him again for an even graver threat against a domestic public official.