United States

Trial and error: The impeachment proceedings against Trump

Print edition : December 20, 2019

(facing page) U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a meeting in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on September 25. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP

A transcript of a phone call between Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky is shown during the impeachment inquiry in Washington, D.C., on November 15. Photo: ALEX WONG/Getty Images

Joe Biden (right) with his son Hunter Biden in Beijing in December 2013. Photo: ANDY WONG/AFP

The impeachment trial against President Donald Trump over Ukrainegate may end up hurting the Democratic Party because the Republican-controlled Senate, which has the final say in the proceedings, may well come to Trump’s rescue and hand him the advantage in the 2020 presidential election.

DONALD TRUMP is less President of the United States and more campaigner-in-chief. Since he took office in January 2017, Trump, and his White House, has been geared towards making sure he remains popular. His popularity is key. In July 2018, he tweeted: “I am the most popular person in history. Beating Lincoln. I beat our Honest Abe.” Trump was referring to Abraham Lincoln, one of the most well-regarded U.S. presidents. This is not the only tweet or public statement where Trump broadcasts his alleged popularity. He is forever disseminating polls of the high regard he is held in by Republican voters (“94 per cent Approval Rating in the Republican Party, a record. Thank you!” he announced in September 2019). As a former game show host and as a real estate developer, Trump knows the value of popularity; it is the coin that he most cherishes.

At campaign rallies, Trump feverishly inhales the devotion of his followers and gives them a tale of gloom to bind them closer to him. He is not able to move an agenda, he complains, because the Democratic Party and the “deep state” are aligned against him. The formula that Trump offers in these campaign rallies is straightforward:

1. I was elected to make America great again, which includes getting you jobs.

2. The Democratic Party has muzzled me with this impeachment investigation and now trial.

3. If I did not have this muzzle, I would have built the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, which would have prevented the entry of migrants into the country.

4. These migrants are taking away your jobs, which is why you cannot get them.

5. My failure to make America great again is due entirely to the Democrats and their impeachment obsession.

That is the clarity of the Trump message. If he could build the wall, the U.S. would be “great again”, industries would return, and jobs would be available aplenty. The U.S. Federal Reserve has calculated that U.S. manufacturing employment as a share of total employment has declined from 28 per cent (1960) to 8 per cent (2017). The reasons for this are many but amongst them are two which have not been addressed by the Trump policy agenda: first, U.S. investment has moved from industry to finance (encouraged further by the 1982 law that allowed companies to buy back their own shares); and second, the immense transformation of global manufacturing along the global value chain (accelerated by the entry of hundreds of millions of workers from the Third World and from China in particular 30 years ago). None of this is on Trump’s agenda. The elegance of his campaign speech is not to convince anyone on rational grounds about the correctness of his policy; the clarity serves to convince already frustrated voters with a simple formula, Build the Wall, that has produced a collective hallucination that this wall itself would create a capitalist nirvana.


It is true that from the day of his election, calls for his impeachment have echoed around Washington, D.C. The first serious attempt to impeach Trump came when allegations that he had colluded with the Russian government to undermine the campaign of his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton surfaced. This collusion was focussed on an attempt by Trump and his team, it was said, to get information from the Russian secret service and from WikiLeaks that would damage Hillary Clinton personally and the Democratic Party politically. The investigation of Russiagate, as the collusion was colloquially called, ran from September 2016 (when members of the U.S. Congress were informed of alleged Russian secret service operations) to July 2019 (when John Koeltl, a U.S. District Judge, dismissed a Democratic National Committee lawsuit against Russia).

Over the course of these months, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director, James Comey, made comments to Congress about the collusion, while former FBI Director and Special Counsel to investigate Russiagate, Robert Mueller, filed a report which could not show conclusively that Trump had colluded personally with Russia. Others in Trump’s staff either made deals with the government or went to prison. But, the real target, Trump, was not anywhere in sight. He slipped away to a campaign rally, where he made it clear that the investigation had failed, that it was a “witch-hunt” and that he was the aggrieved party.

The Democratic Party leadership was wary of an impeachment trial for mainly political reasons. The Democrats control the House of Representatives, where an impeachment trial will begin, but not the Senate, which has, in a way, the final say in the impeachment proceedings. Even if the Democrats were able to impeach Trump in the House, the impeachment would either fail or stall in the Senate. This would allow Trump to return to the campaign trail and to argue on Twitter that the impeachment had failed, which would be true, and that he was therefore innocent, which would be false. The institutional system worked politically against the Democrats, who, quite legitimately, looked at this based on their own electoral calculations. The next presidential campaign is in 2020. If the impeachment based on Russiagate failed, as it would in the Senate, then Trump would run for re-election based on that failure, and on his “innocence”. This was an important calculation.


But then, as the impeachment based on Russiagate spluttered, Trump delivered the Democrats a gift. He gave them Ukrainegate. One of the Democratic Party contenders who might become the candidate against Trump is former Vice President Joseph Biden. Biden’s son Hunter Biden was on the board of directors of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings, for which he was paid a substantial sum of money. This was when his father was Vice President of the U.S. and tasked by President Barack Obama to direct the U.S. policy on Ukraine. To sniff corruption here is not untoward. It is this that alerted Trump and his circle to find evidence of something fishy in the story of the Bidens and Ukraine.

The problem was that Trump decided to ask the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, to find out about the Bidens. This was done in a phone call on July 25. A month later, a whistle-blower informed Congress that there was a rumour that Trump had told Zelensky that if he did not find out dirt on the Bidens, the U.S. would not transfer $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. The suggestion that Trump had asked for a quid pro quo, not to benefit the U.S. but to benefit him politically against a political rival in the U.S., raised eyebrows. The testimony of the whistle-blower and of other government officials forced the hand of the Democratic leadership to start an impeachment trial. There was no way in which that could not happen.

Trump denies that he linked the information about the Bidens with military aid. That is the essence of the charge against him, and it is his core defence. The military aid was withheld. That is unchallenged. On September 24, Trump released a memorandum of the phone call he had with Zelensky (it is now on the White House website). That memorandum contains the section where Trump asks Zelensky about Biden: “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.”

Zelensky and Trump seemed to be on the same page; Zelensky was eager to do an investigation and to help Trump. Whether this was for the military aid or not is what the impeachment proceedings now under way have to discover. In what is unclassified, there is no direct suggestion made by Trump to link the military aid to the investigation. But this is not the only text under scrutiny.

Trump’s lawyer, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, played an aggressive role in Ukraine. Even in this call, Trump tells Zelensky that Giuliani will be in touch with Zelensky about further steps. All eyes are on Giuliani and what he knows.

Six committees in the House of Representatives will sift through the evidence and hold hearings on Ukrainegate. This will take many months and it will easily go into 2020. After they have done their job, they will bring articles of impeachment against Trump to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Trump is banking on the fact that when this impeachment motion goes to the Senate, his Republican colleagues will not abandon him. Trump is the fourth U.S. President, after Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, to face impeachment. Both Johnson (1868) and Clinton (1998) were acquitted, while Nixon (1974) resigned and the impeachment proceedings stopped. Trump will not resign. That is simply not in his personality. Nor is it likely that the Republicans will vote to impeach him; if they do, they will certainly lose the election in November 2020.

What is more likely is that Trump will be saved by the Senate. He will then stand before his adoring fans to huff and puff about how he has been maligned by the Democrats, whose impeachment proceedings had prevented him from “Making America Great Again”.