By: Xavier Starrs
Two hundred and thirty-two years separates the founders’ First Continental Congress and the beginning proceedings of President Donald J. Trump’s impeachment. The founders, in Article 2 Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, outline the causes for impeachment, which they list as treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. With this expansive and broad language, the founders make clear that a variety of actions, both large and small, are impeachable. The founders’ other writings show that foreign interference can be considered one of these actions. In modern day, President Donald Trump’s actions have been called into question because he sought the Ukrainian president’s assistance in digging up dirt on his biggest competitor for the White House in 2020, Joe Biden. If transplanted into the current time, the founders would conclude that President Trump should be impeached based on his solicitation of foreign involvement to settle a personal score, withholding U.S. aid to encourage this involvement, which is a violation of the authority of Congress, and jeopardizing an American election with a conflict of interest.
The founders inserted the emoluments clause in the Constitution in Article 1 Section 9 specifically to prohibit foreign gifts without congressional consent. The founders, in the creation of this clause, intended the phrase “accept any present” to extend to any benefits, advantages, or services. President Trump is in violation of this when he asks President Zelensky for a “favor” in the form of dirt on Joe Biden. Biden is currently in the lead for the Democrats ahead of the 2020 presidential primary. Perhaps more incriminating, prior to making this request, Trump froze $400 million in financial aid that Congress had already approved to send to Ukraine. Trump denies that this action was intended to influence the Ukraianian president, but the timing of this was only one week prior to the phone call, and the delay was suspiciously described to Congress as part of an “interagency process” without further details. The pressure on a foreign leader for a favor while also leveraging millions in military aid would raise concern for the founding fathers. In a letter addressed to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams writes, “You are apprehensive of foreign Interference, Intrigue, Influence. So am I.—But, as often as Elections happen, the danger of foreign Influence recurs”(National Archives). Adams establishes Jefferson’s concerns with foreign interference and reinforces it with his own apprehension that interference is likely to occur in connection with elections. It follows, then, that the two founders would find the president of the United States entangling a foreign leader in an upcoming presidential election while freezing funds highly problematic.
Even if President Trump did want to investigate Joe Biden’s role in conflicts of interest involving Ukraine when he was vice president, Trump would not seek out this information on his own, as a president. The United States Justice Department exists for the sole purpose of protecting the public from foreign (and domestic) threats and they would uncover the truth by investigating using sanctioned methods. The appropriate avenue would be for the president to direct the Justice Department or FBI to investigate.
The conflict between national and personal interests was a cause for concern for founder Alexander Hamilton. In The Federalist Papers No. 65, Hamilton wrote that impeachment was necessary because any foreign entanglement that could “connect itself with the pre-existing factions [of the president], and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be....danger”. Hamilton wanted an impartial president without personal ties to foreign entities. Further, under the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution, the founders restrain what they view as tyranny with the impeachment process. By using his personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, Trump attempted to distance himself from the matter, but it is still not appropriate. The president must not seek personal political assistance from foreign governments, whether it is through a direct phone call made personally or through his personal lawyer. Jefferson believed such solicitation was a presidential abuse that jeopardized the state and public trust (Jefferson, 284).
Considering all the elements of the Trump-Ukraine scandal, the founders would find it fitting to impeach Donald Trump. Through his personal lawyer and in a phone call to the Ukrainian leader, Trump invited foreign involvement in a U.S. election, and he did so while withholding funds, authorized by another branch of government, for leverage. This solicitation is a presidential abuse of power, and it demonstrates a conflict of national and personal interest. The times have changed vastly from two hundred and thirty years ago, but the vision the founders remains.
Adams, John. “National Archives.” Received by Thomas Jefferson, National Archives, 12 Jan.
Hamilton, Alexander. “Federalist No. 65.” The Federalist Papers - Congress.gov Resources -