Democrats shouldn’t blame Latin
If the impeachment effort isn’t taking the nation by storm, the Democrats have an answer — blame it on Latin.
The use of a Latin term, quid pro quo, is now thought to be a damper on the impeachment cause because it sounds complex and technical.
Latin is one of the great legacies of the Roman Empire, influencing languages across Europe and giving us scientific, medical and legal terms that heretofore had been thought perfectly fitting. That was before Democrats felt they needed a more emotive phrase to characterize President Donald Trump’s conduct in the Ukraine controversy, and especially one that denotes a more grave offense.
Democratic Rep. Jim Himes, from Connecticut, made the case on “Meet the Press” over the weekend: “When you’re trying to persuade the American people of something that is really pretty simple, which is that the president acted criminally and extorted, in the way a mob boss would extort somebody, a vulnerable foreign country, it’s probably best not to use Latin words to explain it.”
There’s a lot to unpack here. The first problem is that Ukraine is not nearly as simple, or as dramatic, as Democrats first hoped. It doesn’t have something memorable and inherently attention-grabbing at its heart, like the Watergate break-in or the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. It involved a pressure campaign on the Ukrainians that — once examined closely — was complicated, ambiguous and highly contested within the administration. No matter what word is applied to it — even the plainest, non-Latinate English word — this isn’t going to change.
Another problem is that it wasn’t criminal. Impeachment doesn’t require a crime, but it helps, since a criminal offense represents a bright line. The best card that Republicans had against Bill Clinton in their impeachment push in the 1990s was that he had flagrantly violated the law by perjuring himself repeatedly. Democrats wish they had Trump on similar violations. In their absence, they are attempting to create the impression of rank criminality, via metaphor.
This is why they want to shift to the terms “extortion” or “bribery” — and throw in references to mob bosses.
It can’t be that squeezing a foreign power is a criminal act, though, or every American president would be guilty of crimes in the course of the horse-trading of routine statecraft.
In his infamous “get over it” press conference, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney cited the Trump administration cutting off aid to Central American countries as another example of a foreign-policy quid pro quo. The president wanted those countries to tamp down on migration, an important Trump political goal. If bringing such pressure to bear is inherently illegitimate, this, too, was an impeachable offense.
So the extortion and bribery metaphors prove too much. What makes the Ukraine matter different, and blameworthy, is the object of Trump’s pressure campaign. He wanted an investigation that touched on Joe and Hunter Biden. This was improper because it involved a mingling of presidential powers and U.S. resources with a goal that was, largely, personal and political in nature (although Hunter Biden’s lucrative arrangement with the Ukraine energy company Burisma while his dad was the point man on President Barack Obama’s Ukraine policy was indeed indefensible).
Once we are talking about an improper use of lawful powers, then things are less lurid and more complicated than a mafia-land crime. And once you factor in that the Ukrainians ultimately got their funding without investigating anyone or announcing an investigation into anyone, the picture is even less clear.
Impeachment and removal of a president requires a national consensus to get the two-thirds vote to convict in the Senate. This is why the Democrats need more than wrong and troubling and worthy of congressional investigation, a standard they’ve amply met; they need shocking to the conscience, which they aren’t going to meet on anything like the current universe of facts.
This is the political reality — in English, Latin or any other language.
Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry