During the trial of Donald Trump Attorney Alan Dershowitz advanced a controversial argument in defense of the president. Dershowitz has attempted to explain that his argument was not as radical as it seemed. While the senate’s decision is a forgone conclusion, this defense is philosophically interesting.
When asked by Ted Cruz about whether it mattered if Trump had engaged in a quid pro quo with Ukraine to help his election efforts, Dershowitz contended that motive is what mattered. If an act by a president was in the public interest, then that act would not be impeachable. Engaging in a chain of reasoning, Dershowitz asserted that it was rational for the president (and any official) to regard their own political interest in being re-elected as being in service of the public good. He noted that, “Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest and if a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.” He did acknowledge some limits to this; a quid pro quo involving an illegal activity or aimed at financial gain for the official could be impeachable offenses. In the face of backlash, Dershowitz has attempted to clarify his original argument. While Dershowitz claims that the media and his critics made a straw man of his argument, one can review the video of what he said and see that his complete argument in full context is as the media and critics claim. As such, let us consider his original argument and his later clarification.
Dershowitz’s logic is as follows:
- A president cannot be impeached for acting in the public interest.
- Motive determines whether the president acted in the public interest.
- All officials believe their re-election is in the public interest.
- Trump was motivated by his desire to be re-elected.
- Trump’s motivation was to act in the public interest.
- Trump cannot be impeached for actions taken to get re-elected.
- Trump’s attempted quid pro quo with Ukraine was an action taken to get re-elected.
- Trump cannot be impeached for his attempted quid pro quo with Ukraine.
There are numerous problems with this line of argument. While motive does matter in matters of ethics and law, motive alone is not the decisive factor. This is because evil actions and terrible consequences can arise from even the best of motives. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And good actions and good consequences can arise from wicked motives. For example, one version of capitalism is morally justified by the notion that people acting from selfishness will create the best results. This is not to dismiss the importance of motives, but to put them in their proper role as one factor among many.
Dershowitz does focus on motive and tries to prove that Trump had a laudable motive, that of serving the public interest. His proof is that all elected officials believe that their re-election will serve the public interest and hence their acting to be re-elected gives them a good motive (to be re-elected). This is an odd bit of reasoning and one could imagine an abusive spouse using the same logic: a domineering and abusive spouse will tend to think they are the best for their spouse and hence they believe they are acting in the best interest of the spouse. But it would be wrong to say that they are acting in the interest of their spouse; this is not a matter of what they believe but a matter of fact. Likewise, for an elected official; the mere fact that they think their re-election is in the public interest does not make it so. That said, one could say that their motives are good to the degree they believe they are doing good; but this is hardly an adequate defense of their actions in the face of misdeeds.
As other critics have noted, Dershowitz’s argument would seem to warrant a politician doing anything to get re-elected—which is refuted by the very absurdity of the assertion. Dershowitz did note that illegal qui pro quos and attempts at self-enrichment would be wrong, but this still gives politicians a vast range of options when seeking re-election: they must merely avoid what is explicitly a crime and not enrich themselves financially. In the face of backlash, Dershowitz claimed that he had been the victim of straw man attacks. He asserted that “did not say or imply that a candidate could do anything to reassure his reelection, only that seeking help in an election is not necessarily corrupt.” As noted above, his complete words taken in full context certainly seem to say that a candidate could do almost anything—but he is right that he did place at least two limits on what could be done. Hence, a candidate cannot do anything by Dershowitz’s principle, but they could do anything that is not a crime or personally enriching (financially).
He is also right that seeking help in an election is not necessarily corrupt—just as killing a person is not necessarily murder. But Dershowitz runs into a problem here. While his original argument would, if it succeeded, get Trump off the hook, his modified reply would not—no more than saying “killing a person is not necessarily murder” would get a defendant off the hook in a murder trial.