THE only US president to have successfully been ousted as the consequence of an impeachment process wasn’t actually impeached. Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 once it became clear he would not survive a Senate trial because too many Republican legislators were no longer prepared to stand by him.
The Republican Party was a somewhat different beast back then; 45 years later, the 45th president has no such concerns. Donald Trump inspires a cult-like adoration among Republican senators and congressmen, including those who identified him as a monstrosity in 2016.
So no, history isn’t about to repeat itself, even though Trump is almost certain to be impeached later today by the House of Representatives, becoming only the third president in US history to thus be indicted for high crimes and misdemeanours. However, leading Republican senators have already indicated that the consequent trial in the Senate will be a sham.
The impeachment proceedings were a long time coming, mainly because many Democrats believed that Trump would welcome the challenge. The conservative House of Representative speaker, Nancy Pelosi, pushed back against younger members of Congress who perceived possibly indictable offences in a substantial proportion of the president’s domestic agenda, not least the particularly inhumane policy of incarcerating children, including infants, in immigration detention centres separately from their parents.
It isn’t clear if US voters care about Trump’s Kiev dealings.
Some of them were no doubt counting on special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election to produce with evidence of Republican malfeasance, but it failed to come up with a smoking gun. However, the mood changed when a whistleblower provided an account of Trump’s efforts to persuade Volodymyr Zelensky, the comedian recently elected as Ukraine’s president, to announce an investigation into possible corrupt practices on the part of Barack Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden, on behalf of his son Hunter Biden, who once sat on the board of a Ukrainian resources firm, as the price for a White House meeting and the restoration of stalled military assistance.
The White House subsequently released a summary of a phone call between Trump and Zelensky that effectively reinforced the evidence, but the president insisted it was a beautiful conversation that conclusively proved there was no quid pro quo.
Quid pro quo, of course, is hardly a novelty in international diplomacy. The US never offers anything for nothing. There is a difference, though, between demanding that Pakistan, for instance, become more resolute in pursuing Islamist terrorists in return for military aid, and asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Rightly or wrongly, the former can be construed as pressure that contributes to US national security, whereas the latter comes across as a personal favour, given that the older Biden could well be anointed as the Democratic challenger in next year’s election.
That would, incidentally, be monumental folly on the part of the Democrats, who erred in 2016 by picking Hillary Clinton. But Joe Biden would be a poor choice for reasons unrelated to Ukraine. Besides, it is far from clear whether many US voters particularly care about Trump’s dealings with Kiev, including the fact that he unleashed his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his envoy to the EU, Gordon Sondland, on the Ukrainians while undermining, and eventually dismissing, US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who wrongly assumed her primary mission was to help Ukraine ward off Russian intervention.
Perhaps an impeachment became inevitable once information on this misadventure began to emerge. It might have been wiser, though, to extend the articles of impeachment to include Trump’s routine violations of the US constitution’s emoluments clauses, intended to prevent a president from personally profiting from the office. Trump was barely prevented, by Republican resistance, from insisting on hosting a G7 summit at one of his Florida resorts.
It is worth recalling that Bill Clinton’s popularity actually increased during his impeachment over lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. In Trump’s case, the fact that he paid off porn stars with campaign funds to keep them from revealing their dalliances is another element of his despicable behaviour that finds no mention in the impeachment documents, let alone his habitual mendacity. The most recent calculation by Washington Post puts it at 15,413 false or misleading claims during 1,055 days in office.
That count would increase exponentially were he to be re-elected. The impeachment is unlikely to play a big role in that context. It will depend largely on whom the Democrats pick as their candidate. It would be a huge mistake to aim for the status quo ante under someone like Biden, promising a return to the conditions that made Trump possible. There are powerful alternatives available, but a wise choice would come as a pleasant surprise.
Published in Dawn, December 18th, 2019