This one has truly come in from the outfield. While impeachment has been whispered around the corridors of Washington DC since the beginning of the Donald Trump Presidency, it has never been a serious political reality chiefly because till the November 2018 mid-term elections, both the House and Senate of the United States Congress were in Republican hands. Most Republicans, whatever some of them may feel in private, have thought it politically expeditious to back Trump.
Even when the House math changed in favour of the Democrats in 2018, the impeachment idea did not gather strength though one controversy after another — obstruction of justice with regards to possible Russian collusion in the 2016 elections, campaign finance violations and so on — radiated from the White House. The somewhat wishy-washy conclusions from the Mueller report on the Russian collusion issue also did not add much wind to the sails. The canny Democrat leader and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, has been reluctant to push impeachment, possibly because a weak, fizzled-out impeachment process may have only ended up strengthening Trump’s re-election prospects. She had in mind too that several moderate Democrats, elected from Trump districts, would then find it harder to be re-elected in 2020 and thus jeopardise the Democratic majority and Pelosi’s speakership. Thus, despite provocations, the impeachment notion has been tossed around like a hot potato that one may want, but finds too uncomfortable to hold.
All that changed in the last two weeks. Washington was rocked by revelations in a whistleblower complaint about a Trump phone call to President Zelensky of Ukraine on July 25, in which Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Trump officials had earlier put a hold on $390 million of Congress-cleared military assistance for Ukraine. The Democrats alleged that Trump had abused the Presidential office in appealing to a foreign county to get dirt on a political rival and influence the 2020 elections, using military aid as leverage.
This complaint, backed up as credible by the intelligence watchdog, has proved to be a tipping point and a consensus quickly coalesced around the impeachment idea. Seven first-time Democratic Congress members, not thinking in narrow careerist terms, wrote a joint op-ed in The New York Times asking Congress to proceed with impeachment if the allegations against Trump are true. Pelosi, sensing the mood of her Party, announced a formal impeachment inquiry for “betrayal of oath of office, betrayal of national security and betrayal of the integrity of American elections”. Pelosi probably had little choice — if such allegations about the phone call, backed by evidence, went unchallenged, the credibility of the Democrats would be under question and the bar for the behaviour of any future president would be abysmally low.
Since then, the story has moved incredibly fast, and instead of hushed whispers, we now have not one, but two whistleblower complaints, a reconstructed transcript, text messages, subpoenas issued to the White House for documents, and six House committees working on the issues.
So far, President Trump is being characteristically brazen. Describing the Ukraine call as “perfect”, he has denied any quid pro quo. He has called the impeachment inquiry “the greatest witchhunt in the history of our country”, and tweet-stormed the “Do Nothing Democrats” as well as the process in aggressive, colourful language. With an eye on his base, he has adopted the narrative that his actions are an attack on corruption and have nothing to do with the 2020 elections. During a press gaggle on the south lawns of the White House, he called on China, currently adversary number one, to investigate Biden; even hard-boiled observers of Trumpian Washington are left gaping.
The enquiry is clearly gathering steam. The House Judiciary Committee will have to decide if the evidence is sufficient to frame articles of impeachment. These would require only a simple majority to pass in the House, and the Democrats have that. This would be followed by a Senate trial where a two-thirds majority would be needed to remove the President from office. This seems unlikely at present, and can only come about if the Republican support for Trump crumbles. So far, but for Mitt Romney and some lone voices, others appear unwilling to buck Trump’s base.
If the President were to be impeached in the House, but not removed from office by the Senate, he would be in the same position as two earlier presidents: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Richard Nixon, who would have been removed from office by the Senate, preferred to resign. No matter which path the developments take, President Trump will continue to battle it out vigorously, running down the process and the Democrats, and presenting himself to his supporters as the embattled crusader. But what seems missing is a well-thought-out defence plan.
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