As rare as impeachments may be, today’s impeachment of Donald Trump, president of the United States, for high crimes and misdemeanors was pretty much inevitable.
It was inevitable because of Trump himself, his very character, whose essential nature many who now support him have long understood. As Senator Ted Cruz put it in May 2016, Trump is a “narcissist at a level I don’t think this country has ever seen.” Just this year, Senator Lindsey Graham tried to excuse Trump’s racist, vitriolic attacks on congresswomen of color as “more narcissism than anything else.” “That’s just the way he is,” Graham said.
Indeed, that is the way he is. As I’ve explained at length in this magazine, Trump’s exceptional narcissism defines him, and it’s what makes him wholly unfit for his job. “The fundamental life goal” of an extreme narcissist, as one psychologist has put it, “is to promote the greatness of the self, for all to see.” And that’s Trump, to the point of absurdity, mendacity, even delusion: Calling reporters pretending to be “John Barron,” a fake PR man, to brag about his wealth and sexual exploits; lying about the size of his inauguration crowd; asserting that Robert Mueller’s report provided him with “complete and total exoneration” and found “no obstruction”; claiming that his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “pitch perfect” and that the whistle-blower “got the conversation almost completely wrong”—not to mention the thousands of other lies that have been cataloged over the course of his presidency. So narcissistic is Trump that he attempts not merely to con others, but to con himself, to assure himself of his greatness. Cruz again nailed it in 2016: Trump is a “pathological liar” who “doesn’t know the difference between truth and lies.”
In essence, Trump thinks everything should be about him, for him, for his benefit and glorification—and he can’t comprehend, and doesn’t care about, anything that isn’t. The American diplomat David Holmes testified that Ambassador Gordon Sondland explained to him that “the president only cares about ‘big stuff’”—clarifying, according to Holmes, that this meant “big stuff that benefits the president.”
And that’s why Trump can’t comply with his duties to the nation, and why he now stands as the third president ever to have been impeached. His own stated view of his constitutional authority can only be described as narcissistic: “I have an Article II, where I have to the right to do whatever I want as president.” But as the House Judiciary Committee’s impeachment report rightly explains, “Impeachment is aimed at Presidents who believe they are above the law, and who believe their own interests transcend those of the country and Constitution.” Or, as then-Representative Mike Pence put it in 2008: “This business of high crimes and misdemeanors goes to the question of whether the person serving as President of the United States put their own interests, their personal interests, ahead of public service.” It was inevitable that, given his boundlessly self-centered bent, this president would do precisely that.
Which he did when he repeatedly and criminally obstructed the Mueller investigation, because he feared it would undercut his electoral triumph. He could have been, and should have been, impeached for that alone. And which he did once more when he put his own interests first—again subordinating the nation’s security—by trying to shake down Ukraine to obtain an electoral advantage over a political rival. That, too, violated his oath of office—an oath the Framers of the Constitution viewed as sacrosanct—and thus constituted, as the House rightly found, an impeachable offense.
And ever the narcissist, Trump can admit no wrong. Not only that; the man who clumsily Sharpied a weather map to cover up a mistake in a tweet continues to insist that he acted perfectly in all respects. Trump’s desperate, unhinged letter yesterday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demonstrates that he doesn’t understand what his constitutional duties require, and should cement the case for his removal: “You know that I had a totally innocent conversation with the President of Ukraine.” The “transcript” of that conversation shows “that the paragraph in question”—the “do us a favor, though” paragraph—“was perfect.” “I have been deprived of basic Constitutional Due Process.” “You view democracy as your enemy!” With virtually every word of that letter, Trump showed that he has no idea how he violated his oath of office—and will never be made to comprehend it. Trump would surely do it all again, and violate his oath again, if given the chance.
But the presidential oath isn’t the only oath at issue now. House members also swear an oath “to bear true faith” to the Constitution, and to faithfully execute their duties. Yet too many of them—in particular, 197 Republicans—violated that oath today by voting against impeachment. Worse yet, many have shamelessly mimicked Trump’s mendacity and nihilism, making dishonest and absurd claims in his defense: among many others, that Trump didn’t ask Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden; that Trump was truly concerned about corruption in Ukraine; that Ukraine interfered with our 2016 presidential election; that Republican members of the House were prevented from asking questions of witnesses, and were excluded from investigative proceedings.
Senators swear the same oath as members of the House, and that oath, along with the Senate’s constitutional obligation to “try all Impeachments,” should require them to hold a real trial on the charges against Trump, with live witnesses—including John Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, whose testimony Trump has ordered to be blocked. Equally important, senators acting as jurors in an impeachment trial must take a second oath as well, required by the Constitution: to “do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”
And so senators—especially the Republicans—will face a choice that they should understand goes far beyond politics. They must choose whether to follow the facts, or to follow their fears; to uphold propriety, or to perpetuate partisanship; to champion the truth, or to legitimate lies; to defend the interests of the nation and its Constitution, or the personal interests of one vainglorious man. In short, whether to comply with their solemn oaths, or not.
Should they choose to violate their oaths, history will long remember them for having done so—not simply because of the insurmountable evidence of what Trump has already done, but also because Trump, by his nature, will assuredly do it all again.
— George T. Conway III is a lawyer practicing in New York City