Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 30 October 2020

Impeachment trial: more Americans are starting to believe Trump puts his own interests before the country

US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally. Paul Sancya / AP
US President Donald Trump at a campaign rally. Paul Sancya / AP

On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives adopted two articles of impeachment against Donald Trump. So, the president has been impeached and there will now be a trial in the Senate, correct? Well, not so fast. In the Trump era, nothing is ever quite what it seems.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi has suggested that she might not formally forward the articles to the Senate or name the House’s "managers" – or prosecutors – until she is satisfied that the Senate will hold a serious proceeding.

By simply adopting the articles, the Democratic-led House of Representatives did not automatically empower the Senate to take over the process. Constitutional lawyers are even abstrusely debating whether Mr Trump has been impeached technically yet.

The move to withhold the articles is risky but also politically masterful by Ms Pelosi, who has time and again proven to be Mr Trump's most formidable opponent.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, at a meeting with US President Donald Trump in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Saul Loeb / AFP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, at a meeting with US President Donald Trump in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Saul Loeb / AFP

She never wanted to impeach the president, preferring to focus on defeating him in the election. She understood that the Republican Senate majority has never been prepared to remove Mr Trump from office, no matter what facts emerge about him.

However, her hand was forced by Mr Trump himself when the White House released a summary of a July 25 telephone conversation with the newly elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that appears to show him leveraging US military aid to secure the announcement of an investigation into the son of leading Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

That seemed such an apparently glaring abuse of power, especially as investigations are still ongoing into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, that Ms Pelosi ran out of arguments and options. Almost every witness in the House inquiry made matters worse by emphasising that Mr Trump sought a quid pro quo with Mr Zelenskiy.

As I have noted several times in these pages, impeachment is fraught with peril for Democrats because Senate Republicans can hold any kind of trial they want. Mr Trump passionately wants them to put the Bidens and other Democrats on trial instead of him, but Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has planned a short process without any testimony by witnesses or new documents.

During Bill Clinton's impeachment trial in 1999, such fact-finding didn't happen because an extensive record was already established and both sides agreed it would have been a pointless waste of time. Today no such consensus exists because the White House refused to co-operate in any way, most key witnesses refused to testify and no requested documents were provided. Many key facts clearly remain undiscovered.

Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer requested testimony from acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser John Bolton, White House aide Rob Blair and budget official Michael Duffey.

Mr McConnell flatly refused. Republicans want nothing to do with fact-finding because what has already been established is damning enough and they do not know what might be next. Additional evidence could easily put them in an impossible position.

Ms Pelosi has hit on an artful way of satisfying Democrats without falling into a Republican trap. Mr Trump has been impeached but the House won’t let the Senate dismiss the entire matter through a perfunctory procedure with a preordained outcome.

This certainly intensifies the appearance that Democrats are manoeuvring politically rather than ethically or patriotically. But that is undoubtedly a price worth paying under the circumstances.

If the Senate will not agree to a serious trial, Democrats can continue to investigate the president as he languishes under the shadow of impeachment. It ensures that Mr Trump cannot have his day in court –unless Democrats have theirs too.

The facts unearthed by the impeachment inquiry and the president’s reactions have taken their toll. It would be a political blunder for Democrats not to try to build on that foundation

Mr Trump often chides and mocks Democrats for pursuing his impeachment and claims all this will be helpful to him in the 2020 election.

More often, though, he fulminates about how terribly unfair this impeachment is, comparing it to a coup and worse. His December 17 letter to Ms Pelosi is one of the most bizarre ever penned by a US president.

At the House impeachment debate, his Republican allies tried to outdo each other in following his lead.

One claimed Mr Trump had fewer rights than the victims of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Another compared impeachment to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. One Trump acolyte even said Pontius Pilate had granted more due process to Jesus before his crucifixion.

Clearly this is not actually helpful to Mr Trump. A growing body of polling data from the likes of Politico, Quinnipiac and even Fox News suggests that more Americans now support impeachment, and even conviction and removal, than the number who oppose it. Before the impeachment inquiry began, the opposite was the case. This is especially dangerous for Mr Trump because his governing coalition, which has never been a majority, is so thin that he can scarcely afford to lose any of it.

Plainly feeling vulnerable, Mr Trump appears more sensitive than ever to any potential deviation from absolute loyalty.

In a serious blow, the leading American evangelical magazine Christianity Today wrote in a scathing editorial that the president should be removed from office, calling him “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”.

To offset the impact that could have on his most loyal constituency, Mr Trump will inaugurate a new "evangelicals for Trump" organisation on January 3 next year.

Democrats will take significant political hits for withholding impeachment articles. Mr McConnell will probably breathe a sigh of relief. But Mr Trump will not.

The facts unearthed by the impeachment inquiry and the president’s reactions have taken their toll. It would be a political blunder for Democrats not to try to build on that foundation.

The president is a master of commanding the loyalty of his base. But the growing indication from those polls suggests that the patience of many Americans is wearing thin, as more come to believe that Mr Trump consistently puts his own interests, and not America, first.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington

Updated: December 23, 2019 07:53 AM

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