As we debated the impeachment of President Donald Trump, my House Democratic colleagues and I often underscored the unprecedented nature of the president's actions toward Ukraine. But, while it is true that no other American president has attempted to bribe another world leader for help in a domestic political fight, the circumstances are not wholly without precedent in our nation's history.
It's just that, at that particular moment in history, we were the fledgling democracy desperately in need of assistance from a world power, and it was another nation's politician who attempted to secure a bribe from us. Astute students of history will remember it was known as the XYZ Affair, and that it was America’s first international scandal.
In 1797, President John Adams — just sworn in as our second chief executive — was in a significant diplomatic bind. France, formerly an ally and protector of our young nation, had suddenly begun seizing American merchant ships at sea after America struck a new trade and military treaty with the British, with whom France was at war.
Adams sent three envoys to France: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Elbridge Gerry, who were among our Constitution’s signers, and John Marshall, who would later serve as the fourth chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. The three sought to meet with French Foreign Minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord as a means of restoring the two nations’ relationship.
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But Talleyrand’s agents, Jean Conrad Hottinguer, Pierre Bellamy and Lucien Hauteval, told the Americans that their boss required “a favor” before any such meeting could be had. (Sound familiar?) He sought a hefty bribe from Adams' envoys in order to help bolster his position in the French government — as well as a large loan from America to France — before he would even start formal negotiations.
Faced with this shakedown, Adams didn’t shrug and pay the bribe. Instead, he asked Congress to arm American vessels, shore up our coastal defenses and manufacture more arms, all as prelude to potentially waging war against France.
But some American officials resisted his plans, signaling that they still felt some loyalty to France: It had, after all, only been 13 years since the Continental Congress ratified the Treaty of Paris, ending the Revolutionary War in which France had sided and fought with the colonists. So Adams publicly released the letters he'd received from his envoys laying bare Talleyrand’s extortion, bribery and abuse of power. The only redaction he made was to change the French agents' names to “X, Y and Z,” respectively.
Even France’s supporters at the time acknowledged that Talleyrand’s actions were indefensible, and America stood unified against the scheme. After a few years of an undeclared naval war, the French government dropped its demands and a new treaty was forged in 1800.
The United States of America, only a few decades old, had declared to the world that it would not bow to corruption. We had cemented our place as a serious diplomatic power, and as a rising democracy that was willing to stand firmly for its ideals.
I’ve thought about the XYZ Affair often in recent months, as more and more evidence has emerged that our own president cast himself as Talleyrand, demanding that a smaller, weaker nation give him something of personal value — dirt on his political rival — in exchange for an official act.
America was the vulnerable supplicant in the XYZ Affair; today, Donald Trump is the extortionist. We know what our founders would have thought about Trump’s scheme; they’d be aghast and ashamed. And we know that they gave us the power to impeach a president to punish and prevent abuses of power just such as this.
The question is whether Congress can show the same courage and clarity of vision that our founders showed when they came to this moral crossroads themselves. We too must look corruption in the eye and say, clearly, that we as Americans will not accept this behavior — never have, and never will.
The House of Representatives has done its duty to protect our democracy. Now some senators have said that they won’t even pretend to hear the case fairly, and instead will coordinate their efforts with the White House. It's the same as members of a jury coordinating with the defendant, violating their oath to “do impartial justice” before they’ve even taken it.
The fix is in, as far as those senators are concerned, but it need not be for the rest. It is the duty of Chief Justice John Roberts to preside over a fair and impartial trial and of senators to then render judgment, even if they choose not to convict at the end. That’s the American way, and to scorn it is to reject the letter and spirit of our Constitution and all who’ve fought to preserve it.
This is no time for partisan antics; the core institutions of our democracy are at stake. Individual senators must consider our history and our national dignity, consult their consciences, deliberate impartially and make our founders proud.