In general, one cannot be confident about the intent of the Framers, and that is true about impeachment. For example, while some observers have claimed that President Trump’s dealings with the Ukraine lie at the heart of the Framers’ reasons for impeachment, the issue is far from clear.
As the New York Times put it about the Framers, “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.’” At the time of the founding, the United States was not the world power it is today. Rather, the dominant countries—such as England and France—were in Europe, and the Framers worried that those countries would exercise control over us.
But today, the United States is the world power that can exercise its dominance over weaker countries. That is why the Ukraine and other countries expend considerable effort to woo the U.S. government and earn its favor. The problem with the Ukraine is not that Trump allowed it to control our policy making but that he was trying to control its policy making.
Of course, Trump’s efforts to exploit our relationship with the Ukraine are still very troubling, as is his other misconduct, including his efforts to obstruct the investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his efforts to profit off his presidency. This takes us to a second problem with invoking the Framers’ views on impeachment.
They saw impeachment as an important tool for checking a wayward President, but they also believed that accountability on Election Day was the primary check on the President, with Congress and the Courts as secondary checks. Impeachment is there as a last resort when other checks and balances fail.
A critical question for Congress is whether other checks and balances have been sufficient to contain Trump. To an important extent, they have been. For example, when pressed by members of Congress, Trump released the aid withheld from the Ukraine. Similarly, pressure by lawsuits has led the Trump Organization to put its Washington, DC hotel up for sale.
In the end, the case for impeachment needs to be clear–otherwise, Congress risks the perception that it is employing its impeachment power for political gain.