Trump’s bad judgment isn’t an abuse of power

Early Returns
Bloomberg

Okay, it's time for some critics of President Donald Trump to take a deep breath. 

Yes, Trump abused his power when he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to do him a favor. For that, he was impeached — and while only one Senate Republican voted to remove him from office, several others agreed that what Trump had done was improper.

Recently, though, I've seen several pundits quote the impeachment witness Pamela Karlan's prediction last December (echoed by House manager Adam Schiff) that Trump might one day similarly abuse his power during a national emergency by demanding that a state governor "brand my opponent a criminal" in return for federal aid. And they're suggesting that Trump's clumsy attempts at policy bargaining or general bullying during the pandemic likewise amount to a impeachable offense. 

They do not. At least, nothing that we've seen in public qualifies, and most of it doesn't come close.

There were, for example, many things wrong with Trump's demand on Thursday that he should get something in return if House Democrats want funding for state and local governments. He's factually wrong that most of those asking for help are Democrats; in fact, all state and most local governments now have budget problems, regardless of which party is in charge. He's wrong because as an incumbent up for reelection he desperately needs an economic rebound across the board. He's wrong because presidents give up one of their big advantages within the U.S. system if they only consider themselves representatives of states they won.

But bad presidenting isn't an abuse of power. There's nothing illegitimate about a president demanding something in return for agreeing to a policy he doesn't like, no matter how foolish it might be.

The normally excellent Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell, in an item entitled "We're all Zelensky now," offered a few other examples. To choose one: She complained about Trump's threat to veto any bailout of the U.S. Postal Service unless it hiked prices for packages, which was widely seen as an effort to punish Jeff Bezos (of Amazon.com Inc. and the Washington Post). But proposing a policy change of this type isn't abuse. It's terrible politics; I haven't noticed too many people who want higher shipping costs. And, sure, it's slimy. But politicians in a democracy have wide latitude to choose policies that help some companies and harm others.

In the Ukraine scandal, Trump was pressuring a foreign nation to interfere in U.S. elections, and to do so by either producing false reports about his likely opponent or by conducting phony investigations to embarrass him. The ask, in other words, was illegitimate. The closest Trump has come to such an abuse during the pandemic was to bully some governors into saying nice things about him. That's a far cry from asking them to falsify evidence or break election laws. 

The truth is that legitimate bargaining by presidents and other U.S. elected officials isn't just allowed; it's how the system works. And it's both natural and perfectly acceptable for presidents to seek electoral advantage from policy choices. 

In fact, if Trump really were bargaining with electoral advantage in mind, we'd all probably be better off. Instead, most of these examples are just bluster and bluff; my guess is that Trump will accept whatever Congress decides to do about the Postal Service, state bailouts and so on. That's too bad, in a way, because the president is the only politician with the entire nation as a constituency, and the U.S. system works best when a politician with that perspective is engaged. 

I've called Trump out for abuse of power many times, and not only on the Ukraine story. But this stuff is just ordinary politics done badly, not abuse. 

1. Jessica Chen Weiss at the Monkey Cage on the idea of suing China over the coronavirus.

2. Rachel Bitecofer on the third-party candidates. I generally agree, but again I'm not convinced that Representative Justin Amash would do any better than an (even more) unknown Libertarian Party candidate. 

3. Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman on how the Senate elections are shaping up.

4. The Brennan Center on how much money states would need to conduct safe elections this fall.

5. Emily Badger and Alicia Parlapiano on state unemployment insurance procedures.

6. Tim Alberta on Amash.

7. Philip Klein has an interesting suggestion about reopening schools.

8. And a good David Graham item on all the warnings Trump ignored about the coronavirus. Important caveat: The U.S. doesn't have the worst record during the pandemic, and it's not clear how much the federal government's action, and Trump's choices in particular, actually mattered. The record is clearly one of bad choices by the president, but the effects are far less clear.

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