So, What Exactly is a Crime?

Americans really have to ask themselves what constitutes a crime or an impeachable offense

Publisher’s Riff

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As impeachment hearings continue, Americans should ask themselves a much more crucial and, arguably, central question: What exactly is a crime?

This is a fundamental question. It’s at the very core of the conversation surrounding misdeeds of the current president and why House Democrats decided to pursue an impeachment inquiry. And it’s because of that question that House Democrats really have no other option but to see the process through, as politically treacherous as that exercise might seem and as divided as the public is on it.

Critics and observers alike have cast doubt on whether Congressional Democrats’ case against Donald Trump stands on solid legal ground. Some even argue that what President Trump did was not a bribe. Many, even some legal scholars, suggest murkiness around the charge that a crime or a form of “impeachable offense” (since a crime isn’t necessary to charge such an offense) took place when President Trump imposed conditions on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. What we do know is that it was highly inappropriate, undiplomatic and unprecedented, as we see from this very telling exchange during Wednesday’s first public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee …

COUNSEL DANIEL GOLDMAN: “Have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?”

AMB. BILL TAYLOR: “No, Mr. Goldman, I have not.”

That cloudiness around whether or not this was a crime or an impeachable offense raises a key question all Americans should ask themselves: If this isn’t a crime or the type of behavior that warrants a punishment then what act does?

What are we saying in this particular case? Are we saying that an American president asking a foreign nation to publicly investigate an American citizen and political opponent in exchange for nearly a half billion dollars in military equipment - and putting national security at high risk - is not a crime or an impeachable offense? But, since Congress did impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998, are we then saying that an American president engaged in personally embarrassing sexual behavior inside the Oval Office - and then lying about it - is a crime or an impeachable offense? It’s why it’s essential, at every turn of the discourse, for media, lawmakers and voters to constantly reference the Clinton impeachment and to compare the behavior that was used to impeach that president then against the very dangerous behavior of the president now. Yet, the national conversation, for a variety of reasons, keeps skipping over that.

What exactly is our national definition of a crime? Americans, collectively, seem supremely confident they’ve answered this question considering the United States has the largest prison population in the world: over 2.3 million people in state, local, federal and juvenile jails and other types of imprisonment facilities.

Pie chart showing the number of people locked up on a given day in the United States by facility type and the underlying offense using the newest data available in March 2019.