Fred Hiatt: Articles of impeachment — updated

As they acquitted President Donald Trump of high crimes and misdemeanors nearly five months ago, several Republican senators cheerfully assured us that impeachment would chasten him.

“I believe that the president has learned from this case,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told CBS News. “The president has been impeached. That’s a pretty big lesson.”

Here’s a thought experiment to help test that prediction: Imagine that the Senate had simply postponed its impeachment vote — and that we had the opportunity now to update the articles of impeachment.

Based on Trump’s behavior this year, and what we’ve learned of his prior actions, would we have anything to add?

Article 1: Negligence, leading to the deaths of thousands of Americans, in the handling of the novel coronavirus.

Hold on, you say. Gross incompetence, maybe — but since when is incompetence a high crime and misdemeanor?

OK, let the incompetence — the failure to plan, the early dismissal of warnings, the credulous acceptance of Chinese blandishments — let all of that go.

What makes Trump’s response impeachable is the willful, knowing endangerment of the American people for selfish political ends. The president refused to acknowledge the danger because he did not want the stock market to tank. He told the American people that the virus would just “go away.” When it did not, he recklessly urged people to “liberate” their states rather than follow public health guidelines — again, because he believed restarting the economy was essential to his reelection.

The result: The United States has nearly twice as many cases as any other country. It is registering 40,000 new cases a day; the European Union, with a larger population, has 4,000.

Article 2: Abuse of law enforcement powers.

Aided and abetted by his attorney general, Trump removed the U.S. attorneys of the District of Columbia and the Southern District of New York who had been insufficiently attentive to his whims. He overruled career prosecutors to free former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who had pleaded guilty to felony perjury, and backed a light sentence for longtime crony Roger Stone.

He promised Turkey’s strongman that he would end the prosecution of a Turkish bank, “explaining that the Southern District prosecutors were not his people, but were [Barack] Obama people, a problem that would be fixed when they were replaced by his people,” as former national security adviser John Bolton recounts in his book.

Trump ordered federal law enforcement officers to violate the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters to enable a photo op near the White House. He deployed the Justice Department to seek prior restraint on publication of a book that displeased him. He sicced the antitrust division on disfavored companies.

Article 3: Abuse of his appointment power.

Since February, Trump has embarked on a rampage of retribution against anyone who told the truth to House investigators last fall or, even before that, tried to prevent his original sin in Ukraine. He fired Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who forwarded a whistleblower complaint to Congress. He kicked Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman out of his White House job — along with his twin brother, for good measure — and now threatens to block Vindman’s Pentagon promotion. He ousted Undersecretary of Defense John Rood, acting director of national intelligence Joseph Maguire and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. He nixed Elaine McCusker’s nomination to be Pentagon comptroller. He has fired or replaced inspectors general who reported on the administration’s inadequate response to the coronavirus or were in a position to ensure accountability elsewhere.

Article 4: Abuse of power in foreign affairs.

Perhaps the most appalling violation of human rights in the world today is the cultural genocide China is waging against the Muslim people who live in its far west. China’s dictator, Xi Jinping, has locked away more than a million people in concentration camps.

In a meeting last June, according to Bolton, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

Bolton’s story comports with what House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., recently told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. When she urged Trump to raise the issue of the camps, Pelosi said Trump responded, “I spoke to President Xi. I mentioned it to him. And he said they like being in those camps.”

Yes, maybe Trump is obtuse enough to believe that. And maybe obtuseness is no more impeachable than incompetence. But consider Bolton’s explanation of Trump’s motive: He was begging the dictator to buy U.S. farm products to aid his reelection.

Which dovetails neatly with — remember this one? — withholding a White House meeting from the democratically elected president of Ukraine to extort dirt on his 2020 Democratic rival former vice president Joe Biden.

Which is the theme of every article in our updated indictment: putting personal, political gain above the interests and values of the nation.

Which, in turn, tells you all you need to know about what Trump “has learned.”