Conspicuous in Its Absence, Bribery Charge Still Beats in Trump Impeachment

WASHINGTON (CN) — Though scarcely left out in the monthslong inquiry of President Donald Trump’s conduct in Ukraine, the word bribery is notably absent from the articles of impeachment leveled against him.

The resolution unveiled Tuesday by House Democrats charges President Donald Trump with two articles of impeachment, abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, alleging that he corrupted the U.S. election process and endangered national security in his dealings with Ukraine. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Facing questions on the omission Thursday, House Speaker Pelosi said lawmakers opted for consensus over explosive charges.

“This is a decision that was recommended by our working together with our committee chairs, our attorneys and the rest,” Pelosi said. “The articles are what they are. They’re very powerful, they’re very strong and they are a continuation of a pattern of behavior on the part of the president.”

What Trump is charged with is abuse of power and obstruction of justice — two articles that Representative Mark Takano described as “egregious offenses” supported by abundant evidence.

“It doesn’t serve us well to lengthen the list of impeachment offenses, because what we have here is a duty to present the most compelling of those charges and the most serious of those charges,” said Takano, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Veterans Affairs.

Abuse of power is nowhere to be found otherwise in the framers’ outline for removing a president from office, and there was no specific reference to the charge when President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment battle raged for months in 1868.

As they did in more recent impeachments, however, lawmakers investigating Trump derived the abuse of power article from high crimes and misdemeanors.

“I certainly think that within bribery there is abuse of power,” said Representative Elaine Luria, a Democrat who said she will vote to send both articles against Trump to a trial in the Senate, despite representing a Virginia district that voted him into office.

President Bill Clinton faced four articles of impeachment: abuse of power, obstruction of justice and two counts of perjury for lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But the abuse of power article died on the House floor without a two-thirds vote. 

President Donald Trump with first lady Melania Trump, speaks during a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Judiciary Committee also charged President Richard Nixon with abuse of power for launching illegal surveillance on his political enemies. In August 1974, however, the Watergate-tarnished commander in chief stepped down before the House could vote on the articles against him. 

Frank Bowman, a professor at the University of Missouri, noted in an interview that defenders of the president always try to argue high crimes and misdemeanors, including abuse of power, requires proof of criminal conduct. 

“Of course that has never been true, not in England, not here, not ever,” said the professor, who is also the author of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors: A History of Impeachment for the Age of Trump.

Bribery had been a theme in the Nixon investigation as well, even though it never made it into the articles against him. Democrats opted to use abuse of power to encompass allegations that he instructed close aides to coordinate a coverup of the Watergate hotel burglary.

While the Trump impeachment inquiry was still stationed in the House Intelligence Committee, it did not take long for Democrats to trade the Latin “quid pro quo” for “bribery” as the preferred description of Trump’s conduct.

House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff walked U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland through the elements of the federal bribery statute during his committee’s first public hearing in November.

When the inquiry proceeded to the House Judiciary Committee then, constitutional law scholars who testified also said Trump’s conduct meets the definition of bribery as the founders understood it.

The Constitution explicitly lists bribery as an impeachable offense, but professor Bowman noted in an interview that the charge needs delicacy to advance.

“The whole idea that bribery is easy to explain … ordinary people don’t think of what Trump did as bribery,” said Bowman. “They think of money.”

A House vote on the articles is expected before the December recess followed by a Senate trial in January.

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