The Government Accountability Office issued a short report yesterday concluding that the administration had broken the law in freezing aid to Ukraine last summer. A common response from the president’s defenders has been that the GAO has found such violations of the law on many occasions, and the press did not play it up when it was the Obama administration at fault. That’s true.
But the report is inconvenient for one line of defense of the president. The Wall Street Journal editorialized earlier this week that Trump’s conduct was not impeachable because he wasn’t “either exercising powers a President does not have, or violating some statute or constitutional prohibition.” He was, on the GAO’s account, doing both.
The good news for Trump is that the Journal’s definition of impeachable offenses is overinclusive: Merely violating a statute doesn’t warrant impeachment. The bad news is that it’s underinclusive too: A president can abuse his power in a way that warrants impeachment even if he is following the letter of the law. In this case, we have an abuse of power that also appears to have broken the law. Whether it warrants the president’s removal is a question of judgment. The GAO can’t (and doesn’t try to) settle that question either way.