In his final section before concluding, Professor Turley covers other theories being floated as justification for impeachment, and finds them startlingly weak and contrived.
The Hill has Turley’s lament regarding the the Alliance of Unethical Conduct’s attacks on his thorough and objective dismantling of their coup efforts. (The AUC—that’s the Ethics Alarm shorthand for the Democratic Party-“resistance”-mainstream media alliance to remove Trump from office by any means possible, not Turley’s.) He writes,
Despite 52 pages of my detailed testimony, more than twice the length of all the other witnesses combined, on the cases and history of impeachment, [Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank] described it as being “primarily emotional and political.” Milbank claimed that I contradicted my testimony in a 2013 hearing when I presented “exactly the opposite case against President Obama” by saying “it would be ‘very dangerous’ to the balance of powers not to hold Obama accountable for assuming powers ‘very similar’ to the ‘right of the king’ to essentially stand above the law.”
But I was not speaking of an impeachment then. It was a discussion of the separation of powers and the need for Congress to fight against unilateral executive actions, the very issue that Democrats raise against Trump. I did not call for Obama to be impeached….
In my testimony Wednesday, I stated repeatedly [as I stated in my testimony during the Clinton impeachment] that a president can be impeached for noncriminal acts…. My objection is not that you cannot impeach Trump for abuse of power but that this record is comparably thin compared to past impeachments…. … Democrats have argued that they do not actually have to prove the elements of crimes…. In the Clinton impeachment, the crime was clearly established and widely recognized…. [W]e are lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger….
Writes Ann Althouse in a post yesterday, “it seems to me that the real impeachable offense has always been that Donald Trump got himself elected.”
I wish Prof. Turley had dealt with that, the real justification, in their minds, for the House’s impeachment push.
Back to the professor:
As noted earlier, extortion and bribery cases share a common law lineage. Under laws like the Hobbs Act, prosecutors can allege different forms of extortion. The classic form of extortion is coercive extortion to secure property “by violence, force, or fear.”85 Even if one were to claim the loss of military aid could instill fear in a country, that is obviously not a case of coercive extortion as that crime has previously been defined.
Instead, it would presumably be alleged as extortion “under color of official right.” Clearly, both forms of extortion have a coercive element, but the suggestion is that Trump was “trying to extort” the Ukrainians by withholding aid until they agreed to open investigations. The problem is that this allegation is no closer to the actual crime of extortion than it is to its close cousin bribery. The Hobbs Act defines extortion as “the obtaining of property from another, with his consent, induced by wrongful use of actual or threatened force, violence, or fear or under color of official right.”87
As shown in cases like United States v. Silver, extortion is subject to the same limiting definition as bribery and resulted in a similar overturning of convictions. Another obvious threshold problem is defining an investigation into alleged corruption as “property.” Blackstone described a broad definition of extortion in early English law as “an abuse of public, justice which consists in an officer’s unlawfully taking, by colour of his office, from any man, any money or thing of value, that is not due him, or more than is due, or before it is due.”89 The use of anything “of value” today would be instantly rejected. Extortion cases involve tangible property, not possible political advantage.90 In this case, Trump asked for cooperation with the Justice Department in its investigation into the origins of the FBI investigation on the 2016 election. As noted before, that would make a poor basis for any criminal or impeachment theory. The Biden investigation may have tangible political benefits, but it is not a form of property. Indeed, Trump did not know when such an investigation would be completed or what it might find. Thus, the request was for an investigation that might not even benefit Trump.
The theory advanced for impeachment bears a close similarity to one of the extortion theories in United States v. Blagojevich where the Seventh Circuit overturned an extortion conviction based on the Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, pressuring then Sen. Barack Obama to make him a cabinet member or help arrange for a high- paying job in exchange for Blagojevich appointing a friend of Obama’s to a vacant Senate seat. The prosecutors argued such a favor was property for the purposes of extortion. The court dismissed the notion, stating “The President-elect did not have aproperty interest in any Cabinet job, so an attempt to get him to appoint a particular person to the Cabinet is not an attempt to secure ‘property’ from the President (or the citizenry at large).”’ In the recent hearings, witnesses spoke of the desire for “deliverables” sought with the aid. Whatever those “deliverables” may have been, they were not property as defined for the purposes of extortion any more than the “logrolling” rejected in Blagojevich.
There is one other aspect of the Blagojevich opinion worth noting. As I discussed earlier, the fact that the military aid was required to be obligated by the end of September weakens the allegation of bribery. Witnesses called before the House Intelligence Committee testified that delays were common, but that aid had to be released by September 30th. It was released on September 11th. The ability to deny the aid, or to even withhold it past September 30th is questionable and could have been challenged in court. The status of the funds also undermines the expansive claims on what constitutes an “official right” or “property”:
“The indictment charged Blagojevich with the ‘color of official right’ version of extortion, but none of the evidence suggests that Blagojevich claimed to have an ‘official right’ to a job in the Cabinet. He did have an ‘official right’ to appoint a new Senator, but unless a position in the Cabinet is ‘property’ from the President’s perspective, then seeking it does not amount to extortion. Yet a political office belongs to the people, not to the incumbent (or to someone hankering after the position). Cleveland v. United States, 531 U.S. 12 (2000), holds that state and municipal licenses, and similar documents, are not ‘property’ in the hands of a public agency. That’s equally true of public positions. The President-elect did not have a property interest in any Cabinet job, so an attempt to get him to appoint a particular person to the Cabinet is not an attempt to secure ‘property’ from the President (or the citizenry at large).”
A request for an investigation in another country or the release of money already authorized for Ukraine are even more far afield from the property concepts addressed by the Seventh Circuit.
The obvious flaws in the extortion theory were also made plain by the Supreme Court in Sekhar v. United States, where the defendant sent emails threatening to reveal embarrassing personal information to the New York State Comptroller’s general counsel in order to secure the investment of pension funds with the defendant. In an argument analogous to the current claims, the prosecutors suggested political or administrative support was a form of intangible property. As in McDonnell, the Court was unanimous in rejecting the “absurd” definition of property. The Court was highly dismissive of such convenient linguistic arguments and noted that “shifting and imprecise characterization of
the alleged property at issue betrays the weakness of its case.”94 It concluded that “[a]dopting the Government’s theory here would not only make nonsense of words; it would collapse the longstanding distinction between extortion and coercion and ignore Congress’s choice to penalize one but not the other. That we cannot do.”95 Nor should Congress. Much like such expansive interpretations would be “absurd” for citizens in criminal cases, it would be equally absurd in impeachment cases.
To define a request of this kind as extortion would again convert much of politics into a criminal enterprise. Indeed, much of politics is the leveraging of aid or subsidies or grants for votes and support. In Blagojevich, the court dismissed such “logrolling” as the basis for extortion since it is “a common exercise.” If anything of political value is now the subject of the Hobbs Act, the challenge in Washington would not be defining what extortion is, but what it is not.
D. Campaign Finance Violation
Some individuals have claimed that the request for investigations also constitutes a felony violation of the election finance laws. Given the clear language of that law and the controlling case law, there are no good-faith grounds for such an argument. To put it simply, this dog won’t hunt as either a criminal or impeachment matter. U.S.C. section 30121 of Title 52 states: “It shall be unlawful for a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a federal, state, or local election.”
On first blush, federal election laws would seem to offer more flexibility to the House since the Federal Election Commission has adopted a broad interpretation of what can constitute a “thing of value” as a contribution. The Commission states “’Anything of value’ includes all ‘in-kind contributions,’ defined as ‘the provision of any goods or services without charge or at a charge that is less than the usual and normal charge for such goods or services.’” However, the Justice Department already reviewed the call and correctly concluded it was not a federal election violation. This determination was made by the prosecutors who make the decisions on whether to bring such cases. The Justice Department concluded that the call did not involve a request for a “thing of value” under the federal law. Congress would be alleging a crime that has been declared not to be a crime by career prosecutors. Such a decision would highlight the danger of claiming criminal acts, while insisting that impeachment does not require actual crimes. The “close enough for impeachment” argument will only undermine the legitimacy of the impeachment process, particularly if dependent on an election fraud allegation that itself is based on a demonstrably slipshod theory. Continue reading
No, I wasn’t just looking for an excuse to post a photo of Stormy. This is an ethics blog!
Chris Marschner authored a Comment Of The Day this morning, which reminded me that another of his Comments Of The Day had been waiting on the runway for almost a month.
I’m glad of this, because the topic has nothing to do with the Kavanaugh hearings. Chris was writing about the then-popular impeachment plan–Plan K-— raised by Michael Cohen’s fixing activities. Would I rather think about Michael Cohen or Christine Blasey Ford? Would I rather be kicked in the head by a Clydesdale or a musk ox?
Here is Chris Marschner’s Comment of the Day on the post, Morning Ethics Catch-Up, 8/22/18: Manafort, Cohen, and Mollie: