It is now likely that President Trump will be impeached by the House of Representatives on the grounds that he has abused his power. But history teaches that there are three kinds of corruption in national politics: money, power, and sex. Amazingly, in less than one term, Trump has racked up ample material for impeachment on all three.
Money is at the root of the standard political scandal. Using high office to line his own pockets is what brought down Vice President Spiro Agnew, who took kickbacks as governor of Maryland on government contracts.
And the two great presidential scandals before Watergate involved money. The Crédit Mobilier matter rocked the Ulysses Grant administration in the 1870s, when government officials accepted bribes in return for providing land grants to railroad barons. And Warren Harding’s Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s involved Cabinet members who made a fortune using their authority to enrich oil magnates and others. Unlike Agnew, neither Presidents Grant nor Harding profited in these sordid affairs, but their ineptitude allowed the wrongdoing.
So fixated were Americans on corruption of money as the source of presidential disgrace that many could not understand how Nixon’s impeachment could result from the misconduct in which he and his top aides engaged. “What scandal? I never made a cent from Watergate,” exclaimed former Attorney General John Mitchell.
But Watergate introduced the second kind of scandal: corruption of power. Nixon may not have ordered the break-in at the DNC headquarters, but he was brought low because he actively managed the cover-up and subsequent efforts to obstruct the impeachment inquiry.
This was followed by the Iran-Contra affair in the late 1980s. This one did not lead to an impeachment, but corruption was obvious in the effort to secretly–and illegally–supply arms to Iran-backed Shiite militias in return for the release of hostages and money to fund Contra insurgents in Nicaragua.
Which brings us to the sex scandal. President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying under oath in 1998, when he denied having a sexual affair with an intern. He was not the first president to have a consensual (albeit highly improper) affair in the White House. But he was the first person in national politics to be entangled in a scandal involving behavior entirely unrelated to his official duties.
Amazingly, Trump is a candidate for impeachment on all three. His effort to keep porn star Stormy Daniels from publicizing their relationship made him an unindicted co-conspirator in a crime that sent his former lawyer to jail. And if any of the almost 20 women who have accused him of sexual harassment ever had their day in court, there might be other reasons—including criminal misconduct—to impeach the man who bragged on tape about grabbing women’s genitals with impunity.
Trump could also be impeached for corruption of money. His brazen efforts to profit from the presidency are a daily spectacle, culminating in his breathtaking (and since withdrawn) decision to host a summit of world leaders at his Miami golf club. This is a clear violation of the Emoluments Clause in the Constitution, which, bizarrely, Trump recently called “phony.” Unlike Grant and Harding, Trump is the one being paid in this corrupt use of his office.
And of course, it is corruption of power that is leading to Trump’s impeachment. In the Ukraine affair, there is evidence of an impeachable offense: attempting to coerce a vulnerable foreign government into providing dirt on a political opponent. This is a more serious abuse of power than even the Watergate robbery and its cover-up. And it is only one of this president’s many abuses of power, including contempt of Congress and the obstruction of justice revealed by Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
To be clear, it is not an impeachable offense to be a terrible president. He cannot be impeached for being a pathological liar, a vicious bully, a narcissist, or an ignoramus. He cannot be removed for stimulating fear and hatred, attacking a free press, or characterizing political opponents as “traitors.” It is not impeachable to admire autocrats and demean democratic allies. He cannot even be impeached for imprisoning children on the border or betraying the Kurds and allowing ISIS to spring back to life.
But Trump can be impeached for a stunning number of other things. Unlike Nixon, who stuck to abuse of power, Clinton, who simply lied about sex, and Harding, who allowed cronies to make off with bags of money, Trump has not confined himself to a single avenue of impeachable scandal. He has hit the trifecta.
David H. Bennett, an Emeritus Professor of American History at Syracuse University, is the author of From Teapot Dome to Watergate, a monograph on presidential scandal.