In the face of an overwhelming pile of evidence suggesting that President Donald Trump pressured a foreign country to damage a political rival, most Republicans have chosen either to remain silent or to deny outright that anything out of the ordinary occurred. Others have taken a more sophisticated route: Concede his wrongdoing, but argue that it’s not impeachable.
“Donald Trump should not have been on the phone with a foreign head of state encouraging another country to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden. Some Republicans are trying, but there’s no way to spin this as a good idea,” wrote Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel recently in The Daily Caller. But, they add importantly, that doesn’t mean his error rises to the level of an impeachable offense.
They are, however, indictable. A variety of felony criminal statutes plainly implicate Trump’s behavior, and come with lengthy prison sentences — the types of sentences doled out for high crimes, to say nothing of misdemeanors. Indeed, many of them are straightforward. Altogether, if the impeachment inquiry is limited simply to Trump’s pressure on Ukraine, the charges could amount to more than 10 years in prison.
Take 18 U.S. Code § 872: “Extortion by officers or employees of the United States.” It’s not hard to grasp:
“Whoever, being an officer, or employee of the United States or any department or agency thereof, or representing himself to be or assuming to act as such, under color or pretense of office or employment commits or attempts an act of extortion, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”
The only question, here, is the definition of extortion. The law describes it as “the extraction of anything of value from another person by threatening or placing that person in fear of injury to any person or kidnapping of any person.” Was the Ukrainian president, or any other person, put in “fear of injury” by Trump’s move? As Trump’s envoys made clear in their since-disclosed text messages, Ukraine’s cooperation in the investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden was driven by the promise of a White House visit for President Volodymyr Zelensky and the threat of withholding military aid. That’s not just wrong, as Carlson and Patel rightly acknowledge, it’s also a felony, as the president and other Ukrainians no doubt had “fear of injury.”
Attorney General William Barr’s Department of Justice has declined to press charges against Trump, though the House of Representatives is pushing forward with its impeachment inquiry. In the meantime, Trump has said that he will refuse to cooperate with lawful subpoenas — itself a prima facie violation of 2 U.S. Code § 192, “Refusal of witness to testify or produce papers,” punishable by a year in prison.
Coercing his deputies into joining in the conspiracy would also runs afoul of the law. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Bill Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, reiterated in a text message to Trump official Gordon Sondland, strongly suggesting he was pursuing the strategy against his own wishes.
If Taylor felt coerced into helping with “a political campaign,” that implicates 18 U.S. Code § 610, which covers that crime rather clearly under the title: “Coercion of political activity.”
The law reads: “It shall be unlawful for any person to intimidate, threaten, command, or coerce, or attempt to intimidate, threaten, command, or coerce, any employee of the Federal Government … to engage in … any political activity.” The sentence caps at three years.
It’s also illegal, according to 18 U.S. Code § 595, when a government official, “in connection with any activity which is financed in whole or in part by loans or grants made by the United States, or any department or agency thereof, uses his official authority for the purpose of interfering with, or affecting, the nomination or the election of any candidate for the office of President.” That statute could add another year to the sentence.
Prosecutors, in trying to pressure defendants into a plea bargain, often engage in what’s known as “stacking,” where they find every conceivable charge and stack them to the ceiling, threatening decades in prison if the defendant contests all the charges. A prosecutor who wanted to stack charges against Trump could ding him for 18 U.S. Code § 607, “Place of solicitation,” and 52 U.S. Code § 30121, “Contributions and donations by foreign nationals.” Essentially, it’s illegal to solicit contributions to your presidential campaign from the Oval Office and illegal to solicit from foreign nationals no matter where you do it from: “It shall be unlawful for an individual who is an officer or employee of the Federal Government, including the President … to solicit or receive a donation of money or other thing of value in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, while in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties by an officer or employee of the United States, from any person.”
That’s another three years.