In short, there are real boundaries on Trump's power, and checks and balances to patrol those boundaries.
Trump did not like what he heard. The following day he flexed his Article II muscles and commuted the sentence of Roger Stone, his longtime ally who was investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller in connection with Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Stone, convicted by a jury on seven felony counts including lying to Congress, obstruction of a congressional investigation, and witness tampering, was days away from reporting for a 40-month federal prison sentence.
The commutation ends his prison sentence before it starts and gives Stone the opportunity to continue his appeal as a free man. This appeal could potentially include whether the guilty verdict itself should be overturned because of alleged juror bias.
The commutation is an outrageous step -- but, astonishingly, outrage among senators was far from universal. We are a long way from the constitutional framers' sense of what presidential overreach looks like and how senators would respond.
Many of us who teach and write about the law were angered but not surprised by the commutation. Stone had just spoken to the media, telling news analyst Howard Fineman that he expected it to happen. "[Trump] knows I was under enormous pressure to turn on him. It would have eased my situation considerably. But I didn't."
Fineman later summed it all up: "And so, in the fullness of time -- which is to say, about an hour later -- the White House made official what Stone already knew: Trump was commuting Stone's felony convictions for lying to Congress and tampering with witnesses."
What Stone said was an admission of an implicit quid-pro-quo bribery: an agreement to provide or receive something of value in exchange for an official act -- here, Stone's silence in exchange for Trump's reprieve. It might not have been the traditional political bribe in the sense of money being offered to get a politician to do something, but in this case we can assume that Stone's silence had value for Trump.
Bribery is a federal criminal offense defined in statute 18 USC 201 to criminalize the act of both the person who offers or gives the thing of value and the federal official who solicits or receives the thing of value in exchange for an official act. Moreover, it is a specific ground for impeachment set out in the Constitution.
Why include it as a particular basis for impeachment? Current circumstances show the wisdom of doing so. Even if federal prosecutors were to investigate both Trump and Stone for bribery, we know, given the Justice Department's view that a sitting president can't be charged, that they would not prosecute Trump while in office. (And with Attorney General Bill Barr at the helm it seems all but inconceivable they'd even investigate Trump, who claimed Monday that he was getting "rave reviews" for commuting Stone's sentence.) That's why, if we had a Senate prepared to do its institutional duty