Long derided as folly, Democrats now appear willing to use the ultimate sanction against the President. But having escaped official rebuke for numerous scandals so far, what has emboldened Nancy Pelosi to attempt to impeach Donald Trump?
It came as a bolt out of the blue, astonishing both political observers and the general public. However on September 24th the Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi announced, in marked contrast to her history of political caution and institutional restraint; that she would commence an impeachment inquiry against the 45th President of the United States. When speaking to the nation, Nancy Pelosi sought to address recent revelations of a phone call between President and Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, on July 25th during which Donald Trump attempted solicit the interference of the Ukraine government in the upcoming election. Specifically Trump stated that he wanted his foreign counterpart to engineer an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden (who at the time was the leading Democratic candidate) for the presumed purpose of generating a false controversy and smearing him as an electoral rival going into the 2020 elections. The Speaker highlighted the danger this posed to the strength and respectability of American institutions, and that consequently it was the duty of members of Congress to check the activities of a President who earnestly believes that “Article II says that I can do whatever I want”. However within a Presidency that is at once as equally scandal prone as it is immune from their consequences it is worth asking why the present one has compelled such drastic actions on the part of the Speaker of the House of Representatives?
In answering this question it is worth examining the broader context into which the call between President Trump and Zelensky was made. Calls between world leaders are nothing if not calculated, and much preparation, both legal and logistical, goes into their making. Firstly, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine has been dependent on the United States for maintaining its security against its aggressive neighbor to the east. Though such support has not always been unconditional, because both nations have an interest in containing the spread of Russian influence, the United States never seriously entertained withholding crucial military to their beleaguered partner. However on July 18th, just days prior to the call, Trump ordered his Chief of Staff to do exactly that, and in the process endangered the security of Ukraine without any apparent cause or justification. In his call with President Trump, Zelensky made the precarious of his country’s situation clear and expressed an eagerness to engage with the United States to ensure supplies of aid resumed. Thus from these initial exchanges it appears that Trump had succeeded gaining some leverage over his counterpart, and from which point Trump took his cue to ask a favour of Zelensky.
In particular, Trump wanted President Zelensky to conduct an investigation into the firing of the country’s former Prosecutor-General, Victor Shokin, under the previous government. Trump asserts that this was done at the behest of the then Vice President Joe Biden in order to prevent charges of money laundering being brought against the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings, on whose board Biden’s son Hunter was a salaried member. While these assertions by themselves may raise suspicion, they are in reality highly spurious and their origins convoluted. Shokin’s dismissal was eagerly desired by almost all of Ukraine’s western partners with an interest in overhauling Ukraine’s notoriously inefficient and corrupt judicial system because of his very reluctance to prosecute firms such as Burisma. Indeed Zelensky ran on a platform that was entirely unsympathetic to the policies of the government of which Mr Shokin had been a member. But while Zelensky made clear to President Trump the importance of prosecuting firms involved in corrupt activities, he demurred on Trump’s claims against the Bidens, no doubt conscious of the danger of wading into foreign political disputes. Given the political storm that has since erupted as a result of this call it seems Zelensky’s caution was well advised.
Apologists for the President may see little malice or novelty in the request, likening his actions to similar requests made in full view of the public that foreign nations should investigate his political rivals. Indeed Trump’s prior frankness in this regard has convinced many Republican lawmakers, such as Florida Senator Marco Rubio, have said that the request was not meant earnestly and should be taken as a jest to infuriate his political adversaries. But this does not stand up to scrutiny as how could the President be taunting his political opponents when his staff initially classified the transcript of the conversation. Other Republicans have been more equivocal, suggesting that the decision to withhold aid to Ukraine and the request to investigate the Biden’s are two disconnected events, thereby implying that there was no quid pro quo nature to Trump’s request. Such arguments however ignore the intimation within Trump’s language and his general tendency to view all international relations as transactional.
Democrats by contrast have looked less kindly on the matter, but many had long since concluded that among the Republican base Trump was seemingly immune to scandal, and that as such it would be more astute to see the President rebuked at the polls rather than by Congress, a line to which the Speaker herself previously adhered. Hence the surprise many expressed when Nancy Pelosi officially announced the beginning of the inquiry. Many had in fact been publicly rebuked by the Speaker during the 2018 midterms for promising to support the beginning of impeachment proceedings, and instead were urged to emphasise bread and butter issues of more immediate concern to independent and swing voters. Polls suggest however that the audacity of Pelosi’s announcement has had an effect on voters minds, and indeed a Fox News poll even suggested that a plurality of voters not only supported the President’s impeachment but also his full removal from office.
However it should not be assumed that Pelosi has been deaf to the urgency with which legislators have insisted that Trump be prevented from further degrading both his office and many of the political norms essential for maintaining democratic government. Indeed since many of the earliest and most vocal advocates of impeachment have come from the party’s left it has been in Pelosi’s interest to guard the path to impeachment until a broader consensus emerged, lest Republicans brand any such attempt as a partisan endeavour. Even so, when in recent weeks an increasing majority of House Democrats came out in favour of an impeachment inquiry Pelosi began to shift accordingly. Nonetheless, merely having the political will to impeach a President without a credible inciting incident would be insufficient, as it would be likely to be ridiculed both in the Press and more importantly within the Senate, in whose hands the President’s fate would ultimately lie. Additionally there is the concern that were an impeachment process to prematurely begin and quickly fail, that the President would take his acquittal as a validation of his previous actions and would encourage both himself and his successors to act more brazenly in future.
The subsequent commencement of not one but six House Committee impeachment investigations shows the seriousness with which the House Speaker intends to tread on this perilous ground. No doubt mindful of the electoral backlash the Republicans endured after their rushed and almost single minded impeachment inquiry against Bill Clinton in 1998, Nancy Pelosi intends to be methodical in her approach to unearthing the extent of Trump’s solicitation of foreign backing. In this effort House Democrats will hindered by the White House, which has sought to prevent members of the administration from testifying before any House Committees involved in investigating the President. Mr Gulianni, the personal lawyer of President Trump (and himself a person of interest in the unfolding scandal), has gone to the extent of openly defying House subpoenas mandating his presence before members of the House. This poses an acute problem going forward as though the House possess the means to compel witnesses to appear before its members (by leveling fines for example) they risk escalating the drama of American politics to a fever pitch. However this strategy of non-cooperation does not seem to be uniformly successful as President Trump’s at times temperamental relationship with members of his staff inspires little loyalty, which when combined with the high turnover of Cabinet secretaries leaves a significant number of potential sources which members of the House Committees may wish to interview.
Moreover, the current inquiry should not be thought of as a repeat of the Mueller investigation, which though it uncovered significant criminal dealings on the part of Trump’s subordinates declined to state whether the President himself took part in their attempts to solicit foreign interference. However, two things distinguish the scandal over Russia from the present one over Ukraine. Firstly the transcript produced by the White House places the President himself as the main person of interest in the inquiry, limiting Trump’s capacity place blame on the actions individual subordinates. Secondly, as the incumbent President the question naturally arises as to whether Trump sought to use his authority as the nation’s chief diplomat as a vehicle to secure his reelection. While the President’s often informal and abrasive manner with foreign leaders and diplomats might suggest that he was not acting on behalf of the US government but as a private citizen, the fact of the matter is that he would not have had the means to contact Mr Zelensky was he not the President.
And yet while it may seem that the rationale for impeachment is well founded, and the likelihood of impeachment grows by the day. However it is probable that this process will not result in the removal of Donald Trump from office much to the disappointment of many Democrats. As alluded to earlier, though the House of Representatives has the power to impeach the President, the decision of whether to convict him lies with the Senate, wherein the Republicans hold fifty-four of one hundred seats. Not only that but two-thirds of the Senators must vote to convict the President to remove him from office, and thus a sizable number of defections would be required to see this process through. Given the size of this hurdle one may ask why Speaker Pelosi began an impeachment inquiry at all. It is for the same reason that muscles if not exercised; atrophy. True impeachment is not a tool that should be used lightly, however it is not an unconstitutional power grab that as the President likes to claim but rather a necessary restraint to the violation of constitutional norms. The founding fathers provide lawmakers with a spacious definition of impeachable offences, but if the President’s actions thus far do not constitute a high crime or misdemeanor, then what does?
Written by Thomas Webster