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How Did Democrats Decide on ‘Bribery’ as Trump’s Impeachable Offense?

President Donald Trump on speakerphone

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has sharpened the focus of her party’s messaging in their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. The latest line from Democrats: Trump is guilty of bribery in the Ukraine scandal. It’s an argument that some in media have been pushing since the controversy’s inception, as the Constitution specifically cites bribery as an impeachable offense.

After weeks of a metastasizing inquiry into Trump, how did Democrats land on bribery as the president’s impeachable sin more than 50 days into the debacle?

Pelosi, who rolled out the “bribery” argument a day after House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), explained her pivot to the sole abuse allegation:

“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That’s bribery.”

The abstract language Democrats previously juggled included accusing Trump of executive abuse, obstructing justice and attempting to cover it up and, most recently, pursuing a quid pro quo scheme.

The “bribery” case against Trump could be effective for a number of reasons: aside from being identified in Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution as impeachable, hammering one offense creates a more succinct public-facing argument. But it also highlights an interesting collision between the media’s coverage of impeachment and Democratic messaging.

In September, following reports on the anonymous whistleblower’s complaint, news outlets began speculating about what offense Trump could be found guilty of. This speculation included claims of extortion, abuse of power, and bribery — accusations that, given the allegation from Democrats that Trump leveraged $400 million in U.S. military to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, were summarized in the Latin phrase “quid pro quo,” meaning “this for that.”

Critics of the impeachment efforts have accused Pelosi of landing on bribery thanks to the predilections of a focus group. But there’s one notable voice on cable news who was hammering the “bribery” argument weeks before the House Speaker.

MSNBC host Ari Melber ran multiple segments in early October on his show The Beat and MSNBC’s Sunday Impeachment Special explaining why bribery is the best term to describe Trump’s conduct with Ukraine. While the terminology deployed by Melber earned him some mockery from the Trump campaign — which pointed out “bribery” was not used to describe Trump’s behavior by witnesses in impeachment hearings — it appears that Democrats agreed with the MSNBC host’s framing, given Pelosi’s recent jump from “quid pro quo” to the b-word.

“What we often do sometimes in legal reporting is analyze evidence for which laws apply. Sometimes by doing that, we end up ahead of where the principals are,” said Melber of the Trump campaign’s criticism in an interview with Mediaite.

“It’s not that we are trying to necessarily get ahead of what [politicians are] going to say, but this was a case where it wasn’t just a matter of wording, we did our own legal analysis.”

“What are the potential legal implications? Is there a potential felony, is there a potential impeachable offense? We are reporting that out based on the factual evidence, how it applies under the Constitution,” the host continued.

Per Melber, the bribe is simple. Trump wanted Ukraine to help him win the 2020 election (by kneecapping his political opponent). If Ukraine complied, they would get their security aid, which had been withheld.

“It was really striking as the impeachment hearings launched to see Schiff and Pelosi make this new argument, as we reported, that there’s a potential bribery case here,” said Melber.

In response to the new accusation from Democrats, some Republicans and conservative outlets have chalked up the messaging change to a focus group poll conducted by the House Democrats’ campaign arm which found that respondents viewed “bribery” as more damning than “quid pro quo” or “extortion.”

Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA) accused Democrats of throwing out the “bribery” jab purely for politicalized reasons, saying, “The worst part is they don’t care about the substance. They know they have nothing, so now they’re making it up and polling to figure out what is best to sell to the American people.” The conservative Washington Examiner published an op-ed claiming that Democrats landed on “bribery” after “focus group-test[ing] their impeachment strategy for maximum effect,” while Steve Hilton, a weekend Fox News host, pushed an innovative this happens all the time argument, writing that bribery isn’t an incriminating accusation in politics because “In the swamp, bribery is their business model.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham took a slightly different approach than her colleague, insisting that the messaging change will fall apart under legal scrutiny because “attempted bribery isn’t in the Constitution” — an argument that, according to constitutional lawyers, might not hold water, for two reasons. One, impeachment is not a rigid legal process that requires criminal evidence. Two, the Founders had a much broader definition of bribery than what is used in modern courtrooms.

Melber explained to Mediaite that he chose “bribery” in his MSNBC coverage because the term “is about substance.”

“There’s a lot of evidence that the administration abused its power and taxpayer dollars to try to get help from a foreign country to get elected, that’s the substance,” he said, pointing to other politically-charged bribery cases, such the case of former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevic, who Melber noted “didn’t pull off the plot of trying to sell Obama’s [Senate] seat,” but still “got himself thrown out of office and into jail.”

House Intelligence member Rep. Jim Himes (D-CN) was one of the first Democrats to switch to “bribery” and made a similar case as Melber, explaining last week that it’s a more legally substantial and widely understood way to describe Trump’s conduct. He argued that “abuse of power is not necessarily a concept that most Americans run around thinking about.” On a stylistic note, Himes added that “it’s probably best not to use Latin words” in Trump’s particular case, which he described as a “combination of bribery and extortion.”

While Democrats embracing “bribery” might make for a more concise messaging campaign, Melber still questioned if a singularly-pointed congressional case is more effective than mounting a litany of charges.

“We’ve been studying the past impeachments for any clues, and interestingly some of the historical examples that got the most votes are when Congress threw the kitchen sink at the president,” the host said, while noting that Congress pursued numerous impeachment articles in their investigations against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. “According to history, there’s not a great deal of precedent for the idea that a very narrow or limited approach yields more votes.”

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Caleb Ecarma was a reporter at Mediaite. Email him here: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter here: @calebecarma