Diary from Trumpland

Trump in trouble

Print edition : October 25, 2019

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi alongside Vice President Mike Pence as he applauds President Donald Trump during his second State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington on February 5. Photo: REUTERS

Joe Biden, the former Vice President, and his son Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian oil and gas company, Burisma Holdings, from 2014 to April 2019. In the Obama administration, Joe Biden was entrusted with overseeing the anti-corruption work in Ukraine. Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. On July 25, Trump held a phone conversation with him in which he asked him to investigate the Biden affair. Photo: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

President Donald Trump faces calls for impeachment once again. But as one who does not worry about facts and laws, he will use the move as a weapon in the 2020 presidential election.

Almost from the day he became the President of the United States, Donald Trump has faced calls for his impeachment. The immediate reason then was Russiagate, the accusation that Trump colluded with the Russian government to win the presidency in 2016. That accusation emerged after it became public that the U.S. political police—the Federal Bureau of Investigation—was investigating some Russian nationals for their role in the election. The Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, was appointed to investigate Russiagate. His investigation ran from May 2017 to March 2019. Mueller indicted 34 people but could not find sufficient evidence, as far as the public version of his report was concerned, to indict Trump. It appeared, by March, that Trump had ducked the calls for impeachment.

Then, in September, news came that Trump had asked the Ukrainian President to investigate one of his Democratic Party rivals, Joe Biden. Trump did not deny this, which immediately provoked the start of an impeachment investigation.

Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, ordered the impeachment proceedings. She is correctly worried that these may not go all the way and that this will give Trump red meat to throw to his base. Trump knows how to turn adversity into gold coins. This is what he will do with the impeachment inquiry. But if Nancy Pelosi did not call for impeachment, she would be turning a blind eye to acts that constitute misdemeanours according to the U.S. Constitution.

On July 25, Trump held a phone conversation with Ukraine’s newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comedian. In this call, a transcript of which Trump’s White House released, Trump says:

“The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it.... It sounds horrible to me.”

Joe Biden was the Vice President during the tenure of President Barack Obama. His son, Hunter Biden, joined the board of a Ukrainian oil and gas company called Burisma Holdings in 2014. He remained on that board until April 2019, earning a compensation of $50,000 a month. In the Obama administration, Joe Biden was entrusted with overseeing the anti-corruption work in Ukraine. The conflict of interest disturbed many people. As part of his work, Joe Biden called for the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor Viktor Shokin.

Shokin, who was removed in March 2016, said in May 2019 that he was fired because he was investigating Burisma, although others in the Ukrainian government averred that the investigation into Burisma was dormant at that time. Trump nonetheless seized on Shokin’s statement to attack Biden’s son and Biden himself. Joe Biden is currently leading the pack of Democrats who are seeking the nomination of their party to take on Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

On August 12, an anonymous whistle-blower wrote to the Senate and House committees on intelligence. The whistle-blower informed Congress of the phone call and alleged that the White House had tried to cover up Trump’s request that Zelenskiy investigate the Biden affair.

The letter said that “I have received information from multiple U.S. government officials” that Trump “is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election”. This accusation, and the transcript of the call, which was released on September 26, put the question of impeachment back on the table.

Trump’s response

On September 24, Nancy Pelosi ordered her colleagues to begin the impeachment proceedings. “The actions taken to date by the President have seriously violated the Constitution,” she said. Trump immediately retaliated by calling this “witch-hunt garbage”. Two days later, in a room of U.S. diplomats, Trump said that the whistle-blower was “almost a spy” and called reporters “scum”. He said “Sleepy Joe Biden” was “dumb as a rock” and reminded the audience that Hunter Biden had been discharged from the Navy in June 2013 for cocaine use (he joined Burimsa Holdings in May 2014, less than a year later). It is clear that the impeachment investigation is going to be fought bitterly by Trump, who sees it as an opportunity to rile up his own base.

The House of Representatives’ committees have begun to assemble the subpoenas that will be necessary to take their investigation forward.

The U.S. Constitution allows the legislature to impeach a President for treason, bribery or other “high crimes and misdemeanours”. First, the House of Representatives must investigate the President, and then vote to impeach. The onus then falls on the Senate, which conducts a public trial. If two-thirds of the Senate vote to impeach, then the President is removed from office. None of the 44 U.S. Presidents (Trump is the 45th) have ever been removed from office.

Only two Presidents have faced serious impeachment inquiries, with both of them, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, facing a negative vote in the House but saved by the Senate. Johnson faced an impeachment inquiry for the removal of a Cabinet Secretary without the consent of Congress, while Clinton faced an inquiry for perjury during the investigation of his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Nancy Pelosi is a Democrat with a 235-member caucus of the 435 representatives. Of her caucus, at least 220 have said that they want Trump to be impeached. This is sufficient to go forward (a majority would need 218). One Republican, Nevada’s Mark Amodei, broke ranks with his caucus within a few days; others might join him. There is no doubt that the articles of impeachment will rush through the House, which will then send a motion to the Senate.

In the Senate, Republicans are in charge with a 53 to 47 majority over Democrats. In March, the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said that he would ensure a trial if the House impeached Trump. But there is also a suggestion from McConnell’s office that in the interest of his party he might simply ignore the House’s activities. The Constitution gives the Senate enormous margin in this regard, since it does not say that the trial is mandatory. The Republican majority in the Senate is Trump’s firewall.

Election issue

The campaign for the 2020 presidential election began months ago. Nancy Pelosi hesitated to allow any impeachment discussion because she feared that the Senate would squelch it, and then Trump would campaign on his innocence and on the “witch hunt” against him. Trump has shown that he does not blink, and that he does not worry about facts and laws. He has already shown that he will use the impeachment debate as a weapon to clobber the Democratic candidates.

If Biden becomes the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, then the entire focus of the campaign will be on Ukraine and impeachment. Trump will go after Biden and his son, pointing fingers at the obvious sniff of corruption. Biden might not have done anything illegal, but that his son—with no apparent qualifications—joined the board of a Ukrainian firm while his father was overseeing Ukraine for the White House will provoke anger. It will mobilise Trump’s red-meat base, which will take this story, already ugly on the surface, and grind it into conspiracies of all kinds.

The Democrats will, meanwhile, slash at Trump’s grotesque use of power. They will see Trump’s comments to Zelenskiy as more evidence of his links to the East (Russia, Ukraine) and his attempt to undermine U.S. institutions. No white horses will be on the horizon. Both sides will rush to their corners, the polarity in the U.S. will widen.

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