Given the Republicans’ control of the Senate, it is unlikely Donald Trump will become the first successfully impeached president in US history, but the process could be worthwhile political therapy for the nation, writes Henry McLeish.
Taking control of the House of Representatives in 2018, the Democrats eagerly awaited the outcome of the Mueller Report on whether there was any collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. There was no damning report. While the President was cleared of collusion, it was obvious that there had been an obstruction of justice. The Ukraine phone call scandal then intervened, when Trump, as part of a “quid pro quo”, better known as bribery, linked the giving of $400 million of military aid to digging up electoral dirt on Joe Biden. This is now the subject of the impeachment process.
Impeachment has a long history. It can be traced back as far as 1376 when the first Speaker of the House of Commons, Peter de la Mare initiated impeachment and removal proceedings against Lord William Latimer “for stealing from the public treasury for personal enrichment”.
Borrowed and adapted by the founding fathers, impeachment was described as “a cure for Royalism”, a barely concealed reference to their formal colonial masters. It was agreed that impeachable offences must fall under “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors” and, in two amendments to the constitution, the first congress agreed that “the House of representatives… shall have the sole power of impeachment and the Senate… shall have the power to try all impeachments”.
Only three Presidents have been impeached and none convicted. Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 were not convicted. Richard Nixon in 1974 resigned before the House of Representatives voted on the resolutions. If the House confirms the articles of impeachment, Trump would become only the fourth President to suffer this ultimate indignity. The threat of this has not occasioned any contrition on the part of the President.
As a footnote, for all practical purposes, the procedure for impeachment is obsolete in the British Parliament, but the legislation still exists. The last case was in 1806.
The first phase of Trump’s impeachment, in which private hearings were held on Capitol Hill, has been completed. A vote has now taken place in the House to confirm the probe into the President’s behaviour. Now the public phase opens up with the publication of transcripts and depositions from the private hearings and a set of new hearings to be held in public.
A tentative timetable suggests the wrapping up of investigation in the House, handing proceedings to the Judiciary Committee to prepare the Articles of Impeachment, allowing the trial of Trump to take place in the Senate early in the new year.
The White House is taking every step to obstruct the impeachment process by claiming executive privilege, refusing to cooperate, stonewalling requests for documents and possibly obstructing justice by ordering officials not to appear in any proceedings.
The President, consumed with anger, frustration and deepening insecurity, is lashing out and making worse the already poisonous atmosphere on Capitol Hill.
But at least for now, his Republican base, Republican lawmakers and the GOP leadership are standing by their man. There seems little appetite to defend his conduct, but they are doing everything possible to derail the process, undermine its legitimacy, smear and discredit anyone giving evidence and trashing the whole exercise as a partisan witch hunt against a President the Democrats could not defeat at the ballot box.
There is, however, a growing unease in Republican circles about the substance of the charges against Trump. The President is in deep legal trouble but it remains to be seen whether this will help secure his political nemesis in 2020. Privately many Republicans believe they are defending bad behavior bordering on the criminal. The election setbacks for the Republicans in Kentucky and Virginia last week may start to break down this wall of denial and obfuscation.
Handing Trump a victory?
The country is divided on impeachment on party political lines, but polls suggest there is a slim but growing majority to impeach and remove from office.
For the Democrats, impeachment carries significant risks. Though early days, the public is not excited by the issue and Democratic presidential hopefuls preparing for forthcoming primaries and caucuses are showing little interest on the stump or in formal televised debates.
There is another problem. The trial in the Senate is unlikely to lead to a guilty verdict because the bar for conviction is set very high with a two-thirds majority required. In a Senate dominated by the Republican Party, there is no possibility of the necessary 67 votes being achieved. If, as seems likely, Trump is declared innocent then he will proclaim victory and this could enthuse his base even further as the President’s capacity to lie and exaggerate will do the rest. While his presidential approval ratings are going south, the Democrats are nervous about injecting new life into his base if he wins in the Senate.
But this impeachment has much more significance for the country than just politics. For Americans, this is about re-establishing the rule of law, tackling the “gangster diplomacy” at the heart of government, restoring some credibility to the State Department, stamping out corruption and ending the hollowing out of respect and honesty from within the White House. These ideals should not be controversial. But these are not normal times.
Impeachment should be seen as reasserting the importance of checks and balances. Trump is redefining what is normal and acceptable and creating his own truths but there is now compelling evidence in full public view that crimes and corruption are taking place. This is why the impeachment is of such significance.
Visiting the US now gives you a greater sense of concern about its deteriorating governance and politics. Talking about the President’s actions requires the use of new, more extreme language, a constant feeling of having to pinch yourself to make sure that what is going on is real. The battle for the truth is well underway. Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the EU, reversed his testimony in the impeachment inquiry, acknowledging that he told Ukraine officials that US military aid was tied to their commitment to investigate Trump’s demands and confirming the ‘quid pro quo’ accusations.
This has now been reinforced by testimony from William Taylor, acting Ambassador to Ukraine, who said that it was his clear understanding that US military aid would not be sent until that country pursued investigations that could politically benefit Trump.
And it has also been revealed that Trump asked his Attorney General, William Barr, to make a public statement at a press conference exonerating the President from any wrongdoing in the Ukraine affair. This was outrageous. He declined.
Impeaching the President, to the point of conviction, is unlikely to happen. But the process could be political therapy for a country that needs to rein its President.