Founders’ fear comes to fore
Alexander Hamilton, as usual, got right to the heart of the matter. When the framers were designing the Constitution and its power of impeachment, one of the high crimes they had in mind was giving into what Hamilton called “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.”
For the authors of the country’s charter, there were few bigger threats than a president corruptly tied to forces from overseas. And so as the House opened an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump’s interactions with Ukraine last week, the debate quickly focused on one of the oldest issues in America’s democratic experiment.
The emerging battle over the future of Trump’s presidency will explore as never before the scope and limits of a commander in chief’s interactions with other countries. His adversaries echo the fears of the founders in accusing Trump of committing high crimes by pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on Democratic opponents while holding up American aid. Trump contends that impeaching him would infringe on the ability of future presidents to conduct foreign policy.
Unlike the impeachment battles involving Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, the debate over Trump turns on whether a president can solicit or accept help from abroad to advance his political fortunes and where lies the line between the national interest and personal interests.
While the framers of the Constitution might never have imagined an impeachment battle waged 280 characters at a time, they did essentially foresee a showdown over foreign influence on an American president. In fact, in the early years of the republic, one of the most dominant fears of the political class was falling under the sway of other powers.
“There was a concern, even a paranoia, about foreign intervention, about people who don’t have the interests of a new country being taken advantage of by an old power,” said Corey Brettschneider, a political science professor and constitutional scholar at Brown University and author of “The Oath and the Office.”
The framers expressed this explicitly by inserting what is now called the emoluments clause in the Constitution, barring international payments or gifts to a president or other federal elected official: “No person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state.”
The White House has been mired in controversy over its interactions with foreign leaders. In 1787, the framers of the Constitution did what they could to provide a legal remedy for presidents who fall under foreign influences.