Trying to make sense of the conflicting opinions regarding the 2020 impeachment proceedings in the USA. In particular, is the claim that an abuse of power does not necessarily has to be a criminal offense valid? That is, can a government official abuse power in a manner that is not a crime or a misdemeanor? I am intentionally asking the question more generally than the specific alleged actions by Trump, for I'd like to know whether such thing as a non-criminal abuse of power exists.
No, abuse of power is not necessarily criminal
Imagine a judge that is “heightist” - they always rule in favor of defendants who are taller than 175cm and always rule against those who are shorter irrespective of the merits of the case.
This is clearly an abuse of power. It’s not illegal because “height” is not a category protected from discrimination (AFAIK). However, it is a failure to correctly discharge their legal obligations.
The point is that an act need not be a crime for which the actor could be convicted in criminal court for it to qualify as an impeachable "high crime or misdemeanor."
So, abuse of power isn't necessarily criminal of itself, but even a specific abuse of power that is not criminal may be impeachable, Alan Dershowitz's arguments to the contrary notwithstanding.
No, abuse of power is not necessarily criminal
because abuse of power is a moral construct and something being criminal is a legalistic one.
And that the law and morals are only loosely related to each other has been shown time and time again.
However, a lot of specific types of "abuse of power" have been made illegal due to the fact that ideally law is modeled to conform to morality. But since "abuse of power" is very vaguely defined you cannot just flat out "make it illegal" in any way that a western judicial system could work with (it would however make a good law to allow judges to screw over any politician they want due to the interpretational range)
High Crimes and Misdemeanors (the bigger category from which Abuse of Power was derived) was historically meant as a catch-all for any actions that could cause a peasant to believe that the monarchy was not morally/intellectually superior to the peasantry, and thus question the concept of Divine Right in early times, and the justification of the State and political system in more recent times. We give politicians leeway in their decision-making and expect them to make decisions that benefit the country.
Sir Henry Yelverton is a solid example of someone impeached for High Crimes and Misdemeanors: Yelverton was the English attorney-general in the early 1600s, and was tasked with defending the Crown's monopoly on gold and silver thread via going after the people complaining about it. This was a politically sticky situation, where if the people complaining about the monopoly got someone high-up in government to support their case, Yelverton would suddenly be in hot water and be fired. Thus, Yelverton wanted King James I's tacit approval of what he was doing. Unfortunately, the king was ailing around this time and wasn't around to give approval. So Yelverton hemmed and hawed in public, eventually imprisoning some of the petitioners but not others, and threatened to release those petitioners if the previous attorney-general (Sir Francis Bacon) didn't give his approval of what Yelverton was doing. Soon after, he was impeached for High Crimes and Misdemeanors and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Why? He hadn't committed a criminal act; he was just trying to play politics so he could stay in power. However, he showed indecisiveness and cowardice in his public dealings, which very likely made people trust the post of attorney-general a little less, and by proxy, trust the Crown a little less.
Likewise, Trump using his office for personal gain cheapens the office of President. It means the next President will have a harder time convincing people that s/he's working for the American people and not him/herself. Likewise, foreign governments will have a little less trust that the President is truly speaking for the will of America and not just using the position to earn a buck.
It depends. What is meant by "abuse of power"?
Based on Wikipedia's definition, abuse of power is necessarily criminal as it is "the commission of an unlawful act, done in an official capacity, which affects the performance of official duties." [emphasis added]
But there are other definitions as well. BusinessDictionary defines abuse of power as: "the act of using one's position of power in an abusive way" which might or might not be criminal. For example, a business owner might demand employees double-charge customers' credit cards and also demand that while at work they can only listen to Nickelback.
Both are acts that the owner, through their position of power, are imposing on their employees. Both acts are also arguably abusive. However, only the first act would likely be illegal.
As with so many things it comes down to how we define the words and phrases we use. Given the absence of a commonly accepted meaning, "Abuse of power" is an example of a phrase that is likely to be perceived differently from one person to the next and absent clarification, can lead to misunderstandings.