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Noah Feldman

What the Law Says About Impeachment and Trump’s Ukraine Phone Call

When a government official solicits a bribe, it's both a crime and a "high crime." Will that matter in an inquiry?

Let’s make a deal.

Let’s make a deal.

Photographer: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images/AFP

If it’s true (and we may soon find out) that Donald Trump froze U.S. government aid to Ukraine and made it clear to the Ukrainian president that he would unfreeze it if Ukraine were to investigate Joe Biden, that is certainly an outrage. Depending on how you define the term, it may also be a “high crime” deserving of impeachment under the Constitution. But is it a crime under existing federal law? The answer turns out to be tricky. And if history is a guide, the question will be hotly debated in any process of impeachment.

It is not uncommon for the U.S. government, including the president, to make aid to foreign governments conditional on certain conduct. Indeed, during the Barack Obama administration, U.S. aid to Ukraine was delayed while the U.S. pushed Ukraine to remove its top prosecutor, who had turned a blind eye to numerous corruption investigations. Biden’s role in that pressure is one of the things Trump says he wanted Ukraine to investigate.