Impeachment trial: the US political system is about to be tested in an extraordinary way

Thursday's vote in the House of Representatives on how to proceed with the inquiry into president Donald Trump's conduct

President Donald Trump departs O'Hare International Airport after speaking at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Annual Conference and Exposition, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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With a likely impeachment trial looming – and potentially even subsequent criminal charges of abuse of power, extortion or bribery hanging over him, US President Donald Trump has, unsurprisingly, lashed out. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham described the Democrats' impeachment inquiry as 'secret, shady, closed-door depositions" by witnesses she calls "radical, unelected bureaucrats waging war on the constitution".

Republicans have challenged the investigations at every step and some even staged a sit-in  that delayed one hearing. Several current and former administration officials have failed to testify. Thursday's vote in the House of Representatives to set out ground rules for the inquiry, which is not required by the constitution but should, as speaker Nancy Pelosi said, "eliminate any doubt", is an attempt to ensure the White House does not continue to obstruct the process by withholding documents or preventing witnesses from giving evidence.

Mr Trump seems trapped by the facts. The question is what can and will be done about it.

While an impeachment trial seems almost inevitable, the question is whether enough Republicans in the Senate, who might not respect but certainly fear Mr Trump, would vote to remove him from office

The US political system is about to be tested in an extraordinary way because Mr Trump remains, for now, overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters. Moreover, according to opinions from both Democratic and Republican justice departments of the past, a sitting president is immune from criminal indictment and the only remedy is congressional impeachment and removal from office.

Thanks to a whistleblower – reportedly a long-serving CIA official attached to the White House – the narrative developing in the House of Representatives' inquiry suggests that Mr Trump sought to leverage US foreign policy for personal gain. It is claimed that he threatened to withhold aid, formal presidential meetings and other co-operation with Ukraine to pressure newly inaugurated president Vlodymyr Zelenskiy into announcing that his country was investigating business dealings by the son of Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Mr Trump’s officials, apparently in close co-ordination with the president, even attempted to negotiate the precise wording of such an announcement. Text messages between Kurt Volker, then Mr Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, show they discussed the wording of a potential statement with Ukrainian officials. A pledge to look into corruption was apparently not sufficient. A specific mention of the company that Mr Biden’s son had worked for was required, according to testimony from administration officials.

There is no national security or foreign policy rationale for this. Indeed, it runs counter to established policies. But it serves Mr Trump’s efforts to hobble his opponents.

This potentially damning testimony has been revealed by a parade of non-partisan, highly respected and experienced public servants, including former US ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and current de facto US ambassador Bill Taylor, who fell afoul of the administration by attempting to maintain the long-standing US policy of support for Ukraine and its push back against Russia.

These career diplomats have, in their leaked opening statements at the confidential hearings, painted a detailed and stark picture of efforts by the Trump administration, allegedly at the president’s direction, to seek to use US foreign policy and military assistance to advance Mr Trump’s personal political interests.

They have amplified and explicated what was evident from the White House memorandum summarising a June 25 phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy, in which the American president appeared to strongly pressure Ukraine’s new leader to investigate the company that employed Mr Biden’s son and to look into a long-debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election on behalf of the Democrats, contrary to the earlier accusation that Russia had meddled in the election on behalf of Mr Trump.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of this imbroglio is how upright the US career diplomats and other professional government officials seem to have been been, particularly in contrast to the machinations of Mr Trump’s political appointees and the likes of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

Mr Taylor, whose opening statement was revealed to the media, laid out a highly detailed and effectively unchallenged narrative about how the president and his officials attempted to force Ukraine to make a statement that they were investigating Hunter Biden’s former company. He also demonstrated that he was, throughout that process, opposed to it.

There will probably be more to come in further hearings. But no more is required. A level of impeachable abuse of power was already implied by the White House summary of the June 25 telephone conversation. Under no circumstances would it be proper for a US president to ask a foreign government to effectively intervene in forthcoming election.

At first Republicans centred their defence, however weak, on the notion that there was “no quid pro quo”. This theory did not survive Mr Taylor’s testimony. Republicans are now spending most of their time attacking the process rather than challenging the facts.

For his part, Mr Trump has been even more outspoken than ever, including calling Mr Taylor – who is still in effect his ambassador – a “never Trumper”, adding that all "never Trumper Republicans" were “human scum” – undoubtedly the first time a US president has criticised one of his senior officials in such terms.

Impeachment has long been a possibility for a president with no political background who, in his business career, typically played fast and loose with the rules. And perhaps once Democrats regained control of the House and its investigatory authority, it was bound to come to this. It is extremely difficult to imagine what might mitigate the severity of such allegations or create a sufficient counter-narrative.

While an impeachment trial seems almost inevitable, the question is whether enough Republicans in the Senate, who might not respect but certainly fear Mr Trump, would vote to remove him from office.

Twenty Republicans are needed to do so. If the vote were held today, the answer would be no. But the trajectory looks terrible for the president.

In recent weeks, a two-thirds Senate conviction vote has gone from being impossible to implausible and now merely unlikely. Public opinion, too, is consistently shifting toward broader support for the impeachment inquiry. Televised hearings, planned for the near future, could well create a snowball of support for the removal of Mr Trump.

What more pressure might it take to shift a Senate vote from unlikely to entirely possible, and then from entirely possible to likely? We might well soon find out.

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