Congress

The U.S. Capitol Building

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writers.

The recent revelation that President Trump attempted to coerce Ukraine into interfering in the 2020 U.S. presidential election led not only to an impeachment inquiry, but also to a flood of news and misinformation. Only the most dialed-in voters can keep up with the scandal’s details, and new details are emerging every day.

Every American should understand the essential underlying facts as well as the historical context: what Trump did, why it was illegal, and why it matters.

What Trump did: Congress decided to send military aid to Ukraine to help protect it from Russia, which invaded Ukraine in August 2014. Trump prevented the aid from being delivered while secretly demanding that Ukraine investigate conspiracy theories that would assist Trump in the 2020 election. Trump then tried to cover up his actions by, among other acts, hiding a call transcript in a secret server and blocking Congress’ attempts to investigate.

Why it was illegal: It is illegal to extort foreign governments for personal gain and to ask them to interfere in an American election. It is also illegal to obstruct justice by hiding evidence of wrongdoing and ordering officials to disobey congressional subpoenas.

Why it matters: While Trump’s actions may have broken campaign finance and obstruction of justice statutes, the problem with Trump’s conduct is deeper than its illegality. The central problem is that Trump used public resources as though their purpose were to serve Trump’s personal reelection campaign instead of the interests of the United States.

That is an abuse of power. The United States government, including the office of the President, exists solely to serve the American people. It does not exist to further the personal aims of elected officials. When the public entrusts elected officials with political power, those officials are expected to act in the public’s interest — not use their power to further selfish aims. (That is what the term “corruption” means: the abuse of public power to serve private purposes.)

Trump breached his constitutional obligation to faithfully execute the law on behalf of the public. If Congress cannot hold President Trump accountable for this breach of trust, we will have given up on values critical to the American experiment in democracy: the idea that no one is above the law, that government exists to serve the people, and that elected officials have a fiduciary duty to use government power to serve the public — not to serve themselves.

Ryan McCarl is a fellow at the UCLA School of Law. John Rushing holds a law degree from the University of Texas and a doctorate from the University of Oxford, and works as a film producer.