Horse trading is the oxygen of politics; it is how politicians are persuaded to care about things that otherwise would not make their radar. Not only does it happen all the time, but it is a core feature of our political system; representative government relies on this kind of political trading to ensure a plurality of interests and needs are satisfied.
Members of Congress routinely trade “policy for policy.” You sponsor my bill, and I’ll sponsor yours, you vote for a road in my district, and vice versa. Members even trade policy for personnel and hiring purposes: you support my bill, and I’ll let so-and-so’s hearing move forward, you appoint me to this, and I’ll recommend your protege for that. These deals can even cross the blood/brain barrier between states and the federal government.
It is not corruption. It’s the warp and woof of a democratic political system. But in routinely branding President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as potential “corruption,” and pointing to the exchange of unrelated asks as proof of that corruption, our friends in the fourth estate are acting in willful ignorance and bad faith.
The President has taken a firm position that he did not hold out foreign aid to Ukraine as a condition for investigating Hunter Biden’s activities there. But, even if he did, bargaining isn’t corruption—it’s policymaking.
GOVERNANCE WOULD HARDLY BE POSSIBLE
An esteemed panel of federal judges in Chicago made precisely this point a few years ago. You may recall the prosecution of former-Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on various federal charges. And although the judges largely upheld his conviction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit commentary on the affair was crystal clear. At least one of the counts that the trial judge had sent to the jury was just politics, pure and simple, and could not have been a crime.
“[A] proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment.”
In 2008, then-Illinois Senator Barack Obama was elected to serve as President of the United States. Appointment of his successor in the Senate, until an interim election was held, fell by operation of statute to Governor Blagojevich. In the words of Judge Frank Easterbrook, writing for the court, the Governor saw this as a “bonanza.” Among other things, Governor Blagojevich (through intermediaries) was alleged to have asked President-elect Obama for an appointment to the Cabinet (for himself) in exchange for him appointing Valerie Jarrett to the interim seat in the Senate. Alternatively, he was alleged to have asked the President-elect to “persuade a foundation to hire him at a substantial salary after his term as Governor ended, or find someone to donate $10 million and up to a new ‘social welfare’ organization that he would control.”
The President-elect declined on all counts, but the lawyerly point is this: the trial judge told the jurors that if it found the Governor had proposed any of these three deals, it could return a verdict of guilty.
Not so fast, said Judge Easterbrook.
Writing for a unanimous court, Judge Easterbrook noted that, indeed, the trial judge’s instructions to the jury supported a conviction “even if [the jury] found that his only request of Sen. Obama was for a position in the Cabinet.” But not all the Governor’s proposals were the same. According to the court, “[A] proposal to trade one public act for another, a form of logrolling, is fundamentally unlike the swap of an official act for a private payment.”
In other words, swapping one policy for another is a political commonplace. “Governance would hardly be possible without these accommodations,” the court went on to observe.
INVESTIGATING CORRUPTION IS—AND SHOULD BE—POLICY
To be sure, some folks may disagree with the President’s foreign policy, but elections matter in a representative democracy, and President Trump was duly elected. Whether or not you agree with his politics, he has been elected to do a job: govern.
So let’s suppose—strictly for the sake of argument—that the President did withhold foreign aid to Ukraine in exchange for a commitment to investigate allegations of corruption. This is, quite literally, the exchange of one policy for another—horse-trading in every sense. Does the United States have no policy interest in making sure that the countries with which it interacts—and to which it sends aid money—do not engage in corrupt practices? Of course, it does. The case for “corruption” would require that President Trump withdraw aid in exchange for personal profit—not policy gains that are ultimately good for American foreign policy.
At its core, the case for impeachment is more than a sham: it’s a misinformation campaign in which Democrats and their media are willfully ignoring the way our policy process works to prevent our President from governing.