Alan Dershowitz’s “Maladministration” Argument Makes No Sense

Ummmm what?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

During a heated question-and-answer session on Wednesday, Alan Dershowitz, a member of the president’s legal team in the impeachment trial, continued to argue that even if Trump’s decision to withhold military aid from Ukraine last summer qualified as an “abuse of power,” as such, it does not qualify as an impeachable offense. Instead, he said, “abuse of power” falls under the category of “maladministration”—a term rejected by the framers of the Constitution in the 18th century.

As evidence, he cited…the dictionary. “What is maladministration?” Dershowitz asked, pressing his fingertips together as he stood before the Senate chamber. “If you look it up in the dictionary and you look up synonyms, the synonyms include abuse, corruption, misrule, dishonesty, misuse of office, and misbehavior.”

The Internet promptly did some fact-checking:

Merriam-Webster defines maladministration as “corrupt or incompetent administration (as of a public office).” Macmillan has “bad or dishonest management.” According to Dictionary.com, the term means “to administer or manage badly or inefficiently.”

So, not synonymous with “abuse of power.” And of course, definitions can evolve over some 200-odd years. But even at the Constitutional Convention, it was clear that nobody could agree on the meaning of “maladministration”—and in fact, that was the very reason it was rejected as a standard for impeaching a president. Politico has the 18th-century backstory:

In the waning days of the convention, on September 8, 1787, Virginia delegate George Mason moved to add “maladministration” to the existing list of impeachable offenses—at that point, only “Treason or Bribery.” Madison objected that “so vague a term [as maladministration] will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” Mason responded by withdrawing his motion and substituting “other high crimes and misdemeanors against the state.” Mason’s revised motion passed 8-3, which is how the “high crimes and misdemeanors” language got into to the Constitution.

The puzzling rhetorical cartwheels by Dershowitz and the rest of the president’s legal team all serve the larger strategy of convincing the Senate that in order to remove the president from office, the House managers must prove that Trump had committed a criminal offense. Ironically, Dershowitz has also had to do some additional gymnastics to explain why, 22 years ago, he believed a crime was not necessary for an impeachment trial.

“What happened since 1998 is that I studied more, did more research, read more documents and like any academic altered my views. That’s what happens,” he said. “That’s what professors ought to do.”

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

ONE MORE QUICK THING:

Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate