Disagreeing With Conventional DC Wisdom Isn't a Crime
The New York Times recently reported that President Donald Trump has, on a number of occasions, contemplated withdrawing from NATO. This is an important issue for public debate and, ultimately, for elections. There is, however, no constitutional amendment codifying a forever-alliance with select European nations. So if Trump decided to try to pull out of the alliance — and to this point, he’s done nothing to move in that direction — it would be well within his purview. Even if Trump did so solely to placate Russia in hopes of building better relations with that nation, he’d be engaged in neither a high crime nor a misdemeanor.
Some of us believe that Trump is misguided to consider exiting, but it’s become a matter of faith among many Democrats and never-Trumpers that the very act of disagreeing with their (often newly acquired) foreign policy positions is a crime against “democracy.” As onetime U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, a hero to the resistance for the valiant act of being fired, tweeted, “If true: Trump should immediately and publicly state his apparent wish to withdraw from NATO so he can be promptly impeached, convicted, and removed from office.”
As it happens, The New York Times also recently reported that the FBI “began investigating whether (Trump) had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests” soon after he fired a subordinate, FBI Director James Comey. In other words, as far as we now know, the nation’s top law enforcement agency purportedly launched a counterintelligence investigation in part — or maybe in whole — because it deemed Trump’s firing of its head unjustified and Trump’s positions too favorable toward Russia and thus a threat to national security.
For starters, the idea that the president should be embroiled in an investigation prompted by his foreign policy positions is both dangerous and arguably unconstitutional. We’ll soon know whether there was any genuine evidence to substantiate such a remarkable move. If not, it would mean that the FBI engaged in an unprecedented attack on a duly elected president. It’s not the FBI’s job to set foreign policy.
After all, we have widely divergent ideas about what “American interests” look like. Which ones is the FBI going to treat as potentially criminal? No one contemplated investigating or impeaching Barack Obama after he was caught on a hot mic assuring Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet that he was lying to the American electorate and would have “more flexibility” after the election to acquiesce to Russia’s demands on NATO missile defense in Europe. If pliancy toward illiberal regimes is a red flag, the obsequiousness of Obama administration officials toward the Islamic regime in Iran should have sounded alarms at the FBI.
Moreover, in the real world, Trump has taken the same kind of impulsive and inconsistent positions on Russia as he’s taken on any number of issues. On the policy front, there’s an argument that he’s been at least as tough on Russia than the previous two administrations.
Voters knew these were his positions before they voted. Everyone understood that Trump would be flattering Putin — which isn’t exactly new for American presidents. Everyone knew that Trump was skeptical about the usefulness of NATO. It was widely covered. During the presidential campaign, Trump went on a long rant about how antiquated and expensive the alliance had gotten: “NATO was set up at a different time,” Trump said. “NATO was set up when we were a richer country. We’re not a rich country anymore.”
We’re not a rich country anymore? We’re still the richest, by far. That certainly doesn’t mean that debating the usefulness and cost of NATO is an attack on “democracy” — a catchall for conventional bipartisan policies. A 2018 Reuters poll, conducted after Trump got back from haranguing Europeans, found that 49 percent of American voters believed that the United States shouldn’t be required to defend NATO allies from attack if Europeans were not to contribute more to their defense. Anyway, if the public is shocked about the prospect of backing out of NATO (and did I mention that I’m skeptical that we’re ever going to withdraw?), then voters can let their displeasure be known through elections, not by deputizing law enforcement agencies.
Of course, Congress — the same Congress that abdicated its responsibility on foreign policy long ago — can impeach and remove the president for any reasons it sees fit. But there should be two debates: one regarding the president’s positions and another about his disposition and the legality of his actions. Yet Trump’s obsessed adversaries can’t help but conflate those things to create an all-encompassing, overwrought case that ends up making everything about one man. They have few ethical or constitutional qualms about enlisting every institution to undo the 2016 election. And in the end, no one is really talking about NATO, right? Everyone’s just talking about Trump.
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