In the coming days Donald Trump will become the third American president to be impeached. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, is pushing the vote on articles of impeachment through the House of Representatives as quickly as she can, probably so that the Senate trial of Trump can start before the 2020 election primary season begins.
The Democrats’ rush to judgment raises suspicions. Pelosi knows that the Democrats are probably fighting a losing cause, at least as far as removing Trump before the November election goes. Unless something very strange happens, the Republican-controlled Senate will almost certainly acquit the president.
What is the point, then? The Democrats will say impeachment is a moral necessity, since the president is evidently unworthy of high office. Trump and his allies, for their part, will insist that impeachment has always been the Democrats objective because they know they can’t beat him at the ballot. Each side endlessly obfuscates by accusing the other obfuscation.
The Congressional charges against Trump are meant to be simple. He abused presidential powers and obstructed congress from investigating his conduct. Trump allegedly extorted Ukraine by withholding military aid until the new government in Kiev launched an investigation into his political rival, Vice President Joe Biden, the man who leads the polls to be the Democratic nominee in 2020. That, according to Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, amounts to ‘soliciting’ foreign interference in the 2020 election. ‘The facts are not seriously contested,’ he says. The Republicans are about to prove him wrong.
Trump, it is claimed, pressured the new Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in that now notorious telephone call between the two leaders on July 25, 2019. ‘Do us a favor’, said Trump, then talked about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who was paid large sums of money by a Ukrainian energy company for no good reason at all. At the same time, Trump’s personal attorney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, has conducted a somewhat quixotic investigation into Ukrainian corruption that involved fishing for dirt on the Bidens.
According to the Democrats, through Giuliani’s activities and the president’s hints, the Trump administration made it crystal clear that America’s provision of about $400 million in military aid was contingent on Zelensky launching an investigation into the his would-be 2020 opponent.
There are, however, a number of serious flaws in the Democrats’ case. For starters, the aid was not withheld, merely paused, and Zelensky never launched an investigation into the Bidens. Zelensky himself insists he never felt pressured. He would say that, say the Democrats, but then they would say that. Trump can always argue that he was simply requesting that Ukraine to clear up its evident corruption, including suspicious relationships between the Obama administration and Ukrainian power-brokers, before he handed over masses of American money. So far, at least, no hard evidence proves otherwise.
Facts don’t care about your feelings, they say — to which the only sane answer today is: yeah, right, whatever. The point about this impeachment is that it is a matter of interpretation. If you don’t like Trump, you see a pattern of sinister behavior that amounts to a campaign to extort Ukraine. If you like him, you can’t see what the fuss is about and you’ll think the real conspiracy is against the president. The truth is slippery. Certainly, if this were a criminal case, the prosecution would struggle prove Trump guilty.
Ah, say the anti-Trumpers, but impeachment is a not legal process. America’s Founding Fathers intended it to be a political mechanism to remove bad men from high office. Yet that brings us on to another dodgy valve at the heart of the American constitution. A political system is always going to be politicized, and impeachment inevitably becomes a partisan device for a party to take down an opponent. In the Federalist papers, Alexander Hamilton emphasized that danger. He warned that decisions to impeach could be ‘regulated more by the comparative strength of parties than the real demonstration of innocence or guilt.’
That’s precisely what is happening in the case of Trump. The House of Representatives will find him guilty because it has a Democratic majority. The Senate will acquit him because it has a Republican majority (even if a few Republicans turn on their Commander-in-Chief, a two-thirds majority is required to remove him). Trumpists will celebrate the enduring resilience of the constitution. The Democrats will moan that the constitutional system is broken.
Which bring us back to the question: why bother? The Democrats must hope that the American electorate will be sufficiently disgusted by Trump’s behavior vis-à-vis Ukraine that they do what the Senate was unwilling to do and boot him out of the White House in November. Justice — their idea of it, anyway — will be restored, and America set back on a path towards righteousness, progress, and transgendered bathrooms.
But Trump’s opponents have spent the last three years hyping up various congressional trials and witness testimonies as the moment when, in a Hollywood-style denouement, Trump will exposed as a villain and the horror of 2016 undone. It’s all a fantasy. As we saw in the exhaustive inquiry into Trump’s alleged ‘collusion’ with Russia, these deus ex machina moments always fall flat. Ukrainegate, like Russiagate, will probably end up in yet more tedious rows about intelligence operatives, oligarchs, and government procedure.
Yes, the Senate trail of a sitting president is indisputably a dramatic and historic event –- and Trump is box-office material — but the Democrats are taking a huge gamble in assuming that history must be on their side. Yes, some polls suggest that voters are disturbed by Trump’s alleged ‘quid pro quo’ antics. But most Americans don’t care about Ukraine and find the allegations against Trump too arcane. Voters tend to worry about issues such as jobs and immigration, and Trump can claim successes on those fronts. Unemployment remains at record lows and, while he has failed to build the wall, reports this week suggest that his latest ‘remain in Mexico’ campaign has caused a 75 percent reduction in illegal immigration on the southern border. Trump’s approval ratings have ticked up slightly in recent weeks, and a survey this week found that, since impeachment proceedings began, his popularity has surged in crucial swing states.
Impeachment merely intensifies the polarization in politics that everyone worries about. That suits Trump just fine. On Monday, as the media fixated on the impeachment hearings, another divisive story broke. The Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a 476-page report into the FBI’s inquiry into the Trump campaign back in 2016 — the official investigation into Russian interference which Team Trump has always characterized as a deep-state hit-job against their man. Most news agencies reported that the Inspector General had found no evidence of political bias, thus vindicating the FBI. But Trump found the IG findings utterly damning: ‘incredible, far worse than I ever would have thought possible’. All his fans agree. Who cares what’s true? In Trumpworld, you see what you want, and feelings don’t care about your facts.