Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Impeachment is serious, rare and confusing. Only two Presidents in the history of our republic have been impeached. President Donald Trump will likely be the third. There are deep partisan divides, conflicting talking points and an inability to agree on basic facts. And Ukraine being at the center of this scandal understandably confuses people who may not have been previously able to find it on a map.
But there is one simple question that can clarify this impeachment. It’s a question that all members of Congress should honestly ask themselves as they cast their vote. And it’s the question citizens should keep in mind to cut through the furious spin cycle:
Do you think American presidents should ask foreign powers to investigate domestic political rivals?
Separate this case from the specific personalities and partisanship to see the underlying principle. If you’re a Republican, imagine how you would feel if a President Hillary Clinton withheld congressionally appropriated military aid to a country under assault by the Russians with the request that they formally announce an investigation into her most formidable Republican rival in advance of an election. If you’re being honest, you would recoil.
Then consider the precedent that is being set: If you are opposed to impeachment in this case, then you are saying that future presidents should be able to abuse the unique power of the office for personal political gain. That is a recipe for disaster in our democratic republic.
No one should be an impeachment enthusiast. It is a solemn moment. But as the Republicans’ legal witness, Jonathan Turley, testified in support of Bill Clinton’s impeachment for lying under oath about an affair, “If you decide that certain acts do not rise to impeachable offenses, you will expand the space for executive conduct.”
Unlike the Clinton case, the current situation with Donald Trump falls squarely in line with the Founding Fathers’ expectation for what would be an impeachable offense because they were obsessed with the danger of foreign powers meddling with domestic politics. As George Washington wrote in his farewell address, which I wrote a book about: “Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake, since history and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.”
Moreover, impeachment does not mean removal from office. Neither Andrew Johnson nor Bill Clinton was removed from office because the founders wisely set the two-thirds Senate vote threshold very high. Impeachment is a sanction against executive abuse of the public trust that is enshrined in the Constitution, and therefore it must be seen on a plain above partisan self-interests. And as divided as our nation is, there is far more public support for impeaching President Trump than there ever was regarding President Clinton, who nonetheless apologized for his actions and was condemned for his personal mistakes by Democrats at the time.
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We live in an age of disinformation, where fact-free arguments are advanced with the intention of distracting and dividing people in a democratic republic. Don’t fall for it. The issues at hand in this impeachment are far bigger than any short-term partisan concern. It’s about whether you believe President Trump and his successors from both parties should have a green light to invite foreign powers to meddle in our domestic elections. And that shouldn’t be a tough call.