Founders’ fear comes to fore

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - News - BY PETER BAKER

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.

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