The president committed attempted extortion

November 14, 2019

It appears that the president of the United States committed the crime of attempted extortion on July 25, 2019, during his call to Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky.

During public testimony in the House of Representatives yesterday, Congressman Joaquin Castro asked Ambassador Taylor, “Is attempted extortion and bribery a crime?” Taylor had already pointed out that he is not a lawyer, and that he was testifying only to report what he knew, not to give opinions and speculations. He stuck to that position and answered: “I don’t know.”

Fair point. So I looked it up. Attempted extortion is definitely a crime under state laws in California and Massachusetts. It also seems to be a federal crime, under U.S. Code Title 18 (Crimes and Criminal Procedure), Part 1 (Crimes), Chapter 41 (Extortion and Threats), Section 878 (Threats and Extortion Against Foreign Officials). Both the threat and the fulfillment of extortion are treated as crimes in this chapter. However, the statute focuses specifically on threats to physically harm the foreign official, rather than trying to coerce them to provide a personal favor.

The reason I bring this up is that I think impeachment hinges on discovery of the president committing of an actual crime. It is irrelevant whether the president acted unethically. People who support him wanted someone who was rude and disruptive to force change in the culture and tenor of national leadership. Yes, one could argue that there is deep hypocrisy in ‘moving the goalposts’ from condemning Bill Clinton for (a) having an affair with a subordinate and (b) lying about it, to the known acts of the current president: (a) having multiple affairs (b) raping and sexually assaulting multiple women (c) bragging about this behavior (d) lying about it repeatedly (e) paying off a prostitute on condition of a non-disclosure agreement. Based on the impeachment of Bill Clinton, conservatives have established that infidelity and lying under oath qualify as High Crimes and Misdemeanors as indicated in the Constitution. Since his inauguration, the current president has been under oath to defend the Constitution; so he has been lying under oath ever since that day. But I think that both the Republican officials, who are breaching their oath to defend the Constitution, and the citizens who are ready to vote for them again, are fully aware of this double standard.

One of the proponents of anti-immigration policy here in California was interviewed about the consequences of Prop 187, which mobilized many Latinx voters and leaders here to change the political climate of the state. When asked about our current president, Barbara Kiley said “I don’t have to like Trump, but I like what he does. We needed a junkyard dog. We needed someone who could repo your car and not even think about it the next day.” Electing a disruptive thug makes sense, especially if you are fundamentally unhappy with the direction of national policy. And it is far less violent than forcing a collapse of the government.

The great value of competitive elections is to permit revolutionary change to happen incrementally, without trashing the credibility of the government. On the one hand, incrementalism is deeply unsatisfying to the people (and peoples) who want justice now and have wanted it for decades. On the other hand, a quick review of regime-collapse in other countries shows that the poor and vulnerable die first and suffer most in those conflicts; so violent overthrow tends to harm the very people who deserve justice the most. Over the years I have noticed that advocates of government overthrow tend to be very privileged people. They miss the part about the disproportionate suffering of the poor during government overthrows, because it does not apply to them.

But I don’t think that voting based on fear and self-constructed victimhood is healthy, either. If you feel like elites have limited your ability to earn a dignified living through hard work, then why would you support the policies of Nixon and Reagan? Their policies began the process of undermining working-class earnings starting in 1973. Reagan promoted union-busting. How could you logically conclude that the weakening of unions, and the decrease of working-class wages are unrelated? Why would you try to elect a vulture-capitalist millionaire (Romney) and then actually elect a billionaire? Even now, as official statistics declare that unemployment is low, are you financially secure? Can you pay off your debts with your current income? If Obamacare is repealed, will you be able to afford medical insurance for yourself and your children?

American voters have achieved great things when voting for positive projects and aspirations. When voting with courage, Americans have extended rights at home and resisted tyranny abroad; we have welcomed refugees; we have opened up opportunities both for ourselves and for strangers and immigrants. The list of immigrants who have benefited our country is long, including John Muir, Nikola Tesla, Albert Einstein, Madeleine Albright, Sergey Brin, and Rita Moreno. If ‘great again’ means restoring America to conditions in which waves of refugees are welcome, and wages and benefits for workers are ensured by high rates of unionization (highest in 1954), then yes, we need very different leadership. Certainly not a privileged bully who insists on complete executive impunity.

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