As January’s impeachment trial concluded, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) asked the U.S. Senate a question: “Would we say that you could, as president, withhold disaster relief from a governor unless that governor got his attorney general to investigate the president’s political rival?”
Two months later, Schiff’s rhetorical question looks increasingly prescient. In the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, President Donald Trump has threatened to withhold vital assistance to combat COVID-19 from Democratic governors, most notably Washington state’s Jay Inslee and Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer, because they haven’t been sufficiently “appreciative”—that is, they won’t say nice things he can spin into more ads for his 2020 campaign.
He subsequently backpedaled furiously, claiming his on-camera remarks have somehow been misrepresented and misinterpreted. But Trump already appears to be making good on his promise: According to The Washington Post, as of March 28, Democratic-leaning states such as Massachusetts, Maine, and Colorado had received only a fraction of the supplies they’ve requested from the federal government, while Florida, led by Trump ally Ron DeSantis (R), has received triple what it asked for.
This is why Trump was impeached. In his extortion of Ukraine, he demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announce bogus investigations into Trump’s opponents in exchange for a White House meeting and millions of dollars in vital military aid. But the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic makes the Ukraine scandal look like merely a dry run for Trump’s current apparent extortion scheme, which could leave hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of Americans in the lurch because their governors won’t do Trump a personal political favor.
Considering the current public health crisis, the defense arguments proffered during the impeachment trial are existentially terrifying for American lives and American democracy. Led by Alan Dershowitz, Trump’s defense team explicitly argued that, unless a president violates a specific criminal statute, they are allowed to strike just about any corrupt bargain they choose, as long as they’re doing it for their reelection campaign. That argument wasn’t merely “constitutional nonsense,” disputed by just about every legal expert whose job didn’t require finding a defense for the Trump administration’s behavior; as is apparent now, in Trump’s hands, Dershowitz’s argument is tantamount to a license to endanger American lives because their governors wouldn’t lavish praise on its woefully inadequate coronavirus response.
Dershowitz’s defense arguments help explain why the U.S. House of Representatives chose abuse of power—not extortion or bribery—as the charge on which it sought to remove the president. Trump has shown time and again that he views the presidency only as a vehicle for advancing his personal interests and that he’s willing to corruptly wield his power to achieve those goals. That’s true whether those interests are financial, as he’s left the door open to plowing government bailout funds into his own businesses, or political, as he effectively demands that governors provide praise in exchange for help fighting the coronavirus. It is a wholly unacceptable use of presidential powers to endanger Americans because their leaders stand in the way of Trump’s reelection campaign.
If Trump follows through on his promise to governors, he won’t be the only one with responsible for the public health crisis that ensues. As Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) noted on Twitter, “Adam Schiff literally described this nightmare on the Senate Floor and Senate Republicans”—with the sole exception of Mitt Romney (R-UT)—“voted to exonerate the President,” all without hearing from a single witness. Most egregiously, six of those senators—Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Richard Burr (R-NC), Susan Collins (R-ME), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Ben Sasse (R-NE)—voted to acquit Trump while explicitly acknowledging that what he did was wrong. Notably, Collins justified her vote by saying that she believed Trump had learned his lesson from impeachment—a statement she later revised amid immediate criticism, saying that she merely “hope[d]” he had learned his lesson.
When it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, however, Trump’s actions show that he did learn one lesson: As long as he has allies in the Senate to back him up, his administration can sacrifice American lives at the altar of his reelection campaign with no consequences.
Jeremy Venook is a research analyst for the Moscow Project at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.