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Donald Trump’s Impeachment Inquiry: The Unraveling?

BLOG - 9 October 2019

Just yesterday, Donald Trump made it clear that he would refuse to cooperate with the impeachment proceedings of the House of Representatives. He called the process illegitimate and likened it to trials in a "Kangaroo court". It is clear that this very American impeachment saga will continue for some time with twists and turns and with moves that will further harm American democracy and the legitimacy of its institutions.
 
In his biting memoirs, written after being fired by President Trump early in his term, the former head of the FBI, James Comey, makes a striking observation. Recounting his first meeting with Trump, Comey wrote: "(T)he encounter left me shaken… As I found myself thrust into the Trump orbit, I once again was having flashbacks to my earlier career as a prosecutor against the mob. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. The loyalty oaths. The us-versus-them worldview. The lying about all things, large and small, in service to some code of loyalty that put the organization above morality and the truth."
 
Comey’s observation was prescient. Trump’s mentor was one Roy Cohn, aide to Senator Joe McCarthy, the great demagogue of the anti-Communist witch hunt of the 1950’s. Cohn went on to become a ruthless lawyer, despised and feared, whose clients included, among others, Mafia families of New York, and Donald Trump. Trumps’ real estate business had extensive dealings with mob-controlled construction companies and unions. If Trump learned one principle for business life from Roy Cohn, that was to "always be aggressive, take no prisoners." One should be engaged in "constant attack, ruthless threats, the shameless propagation of conspiracy theories". Or, as another Cohn disciple, Roger Stone, would say in the newly released film Where’s my Roy Cohn: "these were the rules of war. You don’t fight on the other guy’s ground; you define what the debate is going to be about."
 
These principles have always guided Donald Trump and still do as President. His actions and rhetoric, since the scandal over his conversation with the President of Ukraine that erupted from a whistleblower’s report, conform to this well-tested approach. One clear result of this style of governance, combined with Trump’s need for constant self-affirmation, was a furious turnover of senior personnel in the administration and an erosion in the proper conduct of the business of government. More alarmingly, the administration’s commitment to the principles and values of the constitution, to the separation of powers and to the mores and norms of democratic politics, proved to be missing, almost from the President’s first day in office. It did not help the interests of American democracy that the rigid partisanship of the Republican members of Congress and their awe of Trump’s grip over the radicalized base of the Party kept them from practicing their constitutional duty of providing checks and balances.

The political and constitutional drama unfolding in the United States reads like an engaging criminal story without much mystery.

The Mueller Report detailed the disregard of the President for the refinements of the judicial process, but its impact remained limited as its message was too convoluted. The public was weary of Washington intrigues, struggles and partisanship. Therefore, talk of impeachment remained just that, as the Democratic leadership in Congress found it politically inexpedient to pursue the process, despite clear evidence in the Mueller Report for obstruction of justice and possibly for cooperation between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government during the Presidential electoral campaign of 2016.

In the Trump world, of course, the conspiracy to corrupt the elections happened in the opposite direction. For him, the rest of the world colluded with the American "deep state" to help Hillary Clinton. This fixation explains his effort to recruit the Ukrainian government to prove that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee originated not from Russia but from Ukraine; and that the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike had hidden the Democratic National Committee’s server in that country.
 
The Ukraine crisis somehow brought all the problems pertaining to this administration to a head. So, the political and constitutional drama unfolding in the United States reads like an engaging criminal story without much mystery. That crisis unfolded over a conversation that Trump had with the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Based on the reconstructed summary of the conversation that the White House submitted to Congress, Trump asks Zelensky "to do us a favor". The implied favor is for Ukraine to find dirt on the Biden family, former Vice President Joe Biden being Trump’s most threatening rival at this stage of the electoral cycle in the upcoming Presidential elections of 2020. Furthermore, Trump asked Zelensky to contact his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and the Attorney General of the US, William Barr, to proceed.
 
What made this politically-driven and self-serving "favor" even more egregious on the part of many centrist Democrats was the fact that prior to the conversation, the White House, upon the explicit demand of the President, suspended the delivery of $391 million worth of military equipment to Ukraine that was already appropriated by Congress for that country to fight the Russian army.
 
In the words of a Democratic congresswoman, a former US Air Force officer, who, at first, opposed impeachment, but then dramatically changed her position in the wake of the news of the phone call, "a sitting president allegedly withheld foreign military expenditures from an ally fighting against a foe of ours in exchange for information on a possible foe of his in an upcoming election." This, in the judgment of many Democrats, legal experts and commentators is exactly the kind of behavior that the founding fathers had in mind when they put in place the procedure of impeachment for acts "of high crimes and misdemeanors".
 
Congress became aware of the conversation thanks to a whistleblower report that the administration declined to send to Congress, as the law suggests. This development broke the resistance to impeachment of one of the most seasoned politicians in the US, the speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. After having blocked the demands for impeachment for a long time, suggesting it would politically backfire, Pelosi came around and defended her decision to let the investigations proceed on the grounds of "keeping the American Republic". In a way, the decision that was politically risky meant that the Democratic leadership crossed a threshold whereby defending Constitutional integrity was well worth the political risk to them in the upcoming Presidential elections.

Yet, the issue of impeachment remains a potentially traumatic one for the American Republic and its democratic politics. It would worsen the polarization of the public/electorate, deepen the alienation of Trump supporters who have not budged from their support an inch since the scandal broke, and further intensify the cultural divide. The ever-present threat of a violent eruption of ultra-right-wing groups and militias, which Trump keeps on inciting should not be underestimated either. After all the President, quoting an evangelical preacher, even said that his impeachment could lead to a "civil war".

The issue of impeachment remains a potentially traumatic one for the American Republic and its democratic politics.

It is still true though, that the politics of the country has shifted to a different plane. During the event, once the scandal was exposed and compounded with new revelations and Trump’s erratic, self-incriminating behavior, the so far anti-impeachment public opinion began to shift, ever so gradually. After all, the President asked for the Chinese government to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden, in plain view of TV cameras and thus crossed the line openly on asking for a foreign government to interfere with American elections. Moreover, the example of the first whistleblower seems to have encouraged other personnel within the American government, who stayed publicly quiet out of loyalty, careerism or sense of duty, to come forward. Even the ever supportive, insidious Fox News gave signals that they might occasionally take positions that would make the President uncomfortable.
 
At the moment, the dysfunctional nature of this administration is in full display, as is its corruption. The abuse of office for personal gains, whether these are in political or business terms, has been exposed many times. The fact that the Attorney General of the United States, who is supposed to be above any taint of partisanship, is acting as the personal attorney of the President symbolizes the degree of corrosion in proper conduct and use of authority of office. Trump’s base remains defiantly loyal to him despite all the revelations. Yet, his responses and behavior suggest that, under fire, his grip on power is unravelling, as the swift and forceful reaction from Congress and the bureaucracy to his decision to withdraw from Syria demonstrated.
 
American politics will be in turmoil for some time and the Presidential primary and campaign seasons are likely to witness bitter recriminations and even incitement to violence. The House of Representatives expects to wrap up its impeachment proceedings by the end of the year, although it may be more advisable for them to go slow and let the public digest the profundity of the corruption in the Trump administration. The Senate, that will sit as a court if the President is impeached by the House, is unlikely to produce the required two thirds majority to find Trump guilty and remove him from office.
 
It is safe to say that for at least another year, the world will not have a coherent American leadership in substantive global matters or any matters pertaining to transatlantic security. In such a period of global flux, an introverted and institutionally weakened America will be a force for instability.

 

Copyright : Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

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