Why Democrats should proceed with caution in trying to impeach Donald Trump

In the hands of a Republican-majority Senate, leader Mitch McConnell could call the shots in an impeachment trial involving the US president

epa07875465 US President Donald Trump attends a reception for a Hispanic Heritage Month, at the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 27 September 2019.  EPA/YURI GRIPAS / POOL world rights
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The Washington political landscape has been battered by a hurricane of shattering revelations, which gathered force and speed last week. It revealed what might prove to be one of the most damning scandals in US history: allegations that US President Donald Trump abused the power of his office to solicit foreign intervention in the 2020 election and that his officials improperly tried to cover it up.

What happens next will be decisive. Mr Trump faces potential impeachment and disgrace. But by launching a formal impeachment inquiry, Democrats have a huge opportunity that could also backfire in a catastrophic failure.

The whistleblower complaint by a US intelligence official, thought to be a CIA officer, was released to the House intelligence committee on Thursday and opens with this declaration: “In the course of my official duties, I have received information from multiple US government officials that the president of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.”

The White House released a memo on the telephone conversation but has so far refused to release the full transcript, despite repeated demands

The complainant alleges that over several months, Mr Trump tried to strongarm newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into co-operating with his private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to dig up dirt on his political foes. The documents suggest others might also have been involved, including attorney general William Barr. On Wednesday, the White House released a memo summarising a telephone conversation that took place on July 25 between the two presidents but has so far refused to release the full transcript, despite repeated demands. The whistleblower says the fact that documents relating to the call were stored in the most sensitive classified materiel computers is further incriminating evidence, given that they contained politically damaging rather than security-level material and demonstrate officials understood the serious implications of the conversation.

On Friday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was subpoenaed to hand over relevant documents within one week and five officials from his department will be questioned by Congress.

The whistleblower complaint suggests that for months before Mr Zelenskiy’s inauguration, Mr Giuliani was visiting Ukraine and cultivating its leaders to discover or concoct embarrassing information against Mr Trump’s potential 2020 election opponent, former vice president Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Mr Zelenskiy’s presidential victory threatened to derail this project.

The whistleblower says Mr Trump wasn’t sure how co-operative Mr Zelenskiy would be so, in the context of Ukraine's ongoing struggle with Russia, he blocked nearly $400 million in military aid and dangled the prospect of presidential meetings to ensure the Ukrainian leader would "play ball", as the complaint puts it.

During the July 25 telephone conversation summarised in the White House memo, Mr Trump allegedly sought to use the suspended aid as leverage to persuade Mr Zelenskiy to help him, saying: “I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good, but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”

The whistleblower was not party to the call but was aware of its details and tracked similar activities over several months, gathering information from a number of other concerned officials within the government. Mr Trump has not helped his case by saying those who leaked the information should be treated as spies and traitors used to be "in the old days when we were smart".

Mr Trump already faces the prospect of impeachment on several issues involving the abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

Some Republicans have rushed to support Mr Trump but they lack plausible arguments, especially since, by scrambling to hide the evidence, White House officials implicitly acknowledged the outrageousness of his conduct.

Republicans are thus left defending the indefensible for transparently partisan purposes, denying established facts, suggesting such behaviour is tolerable or even normal, or spinning bizarre "deep state" conspiracies.

Nonetheless, Democrats must proceed cautiously and ensure the public is sufficiently supportive before adopting articles of impeachment that would mandate a Senate trial.

Once the articles of impeachment are approved by the House, Mr McConnell's majority could decide what evidence to allow, even overruling presiding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts

After all, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans would control such a trial and there are few rules on how one must be conducted. Once the articles of impeachment are approved by the House, Mr McConnell’s majority could decide what procedures and rules of evidence to allow, even overruling presiding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts with simple majority votes. Unless they are restrained by strong public sentiment, they could not only acquit Mr Trump but effectively put the Democrats themselves on trial. Equally, they could choose to do nothing at all or vote to summarily acquit the president. So while Democrats are hurtling on a fast track towards an impeachment procedure, they need to slow down.

Their immediate task is to gather evidence and testimony long denied them by administration stonewalling and assemble a clear, factual and simple narrative for the public, in contrast to the convoluted, almost impenetrable, Robert Mueller report.

Stonewalling should no longer be possible because the impeachment inquiry invalidates the administration's spurious assertions that only the executive branch can investigate lawbreaking, and that congressional requests for documents and testimony are not pursuant to any “legitimate legislative function”. Impeachment is indisputably a legislative function.

If hearings produce a significant shift in public opinion in favour of impeachment– which is a distinct possibility, opening cracks in the Republican Senate firewall – then adopting articles of impeachment and forcing a Senate trial makes sense.

Otherwise, Democrats should avoid passing the baton to Mr McConnell and instead use hearings to promote a detailed, overwhelming narrative of Mr Trump’s wrongdoings for the public in the 2020 election.

Public opinion is already shifting, with a slight majority for the first time in favour of impeaching the president. That could quickly snowball.

Many Republican senators are dodging the issue rather than defending Mr Trump. They know this behaviour is completely indefensible, even if the president cannot fathom why.

How ironic that, having survived a massive investigation into allegedly co-operating with one foreign country to win his first election, Mr Trump might be undone by actively soliciting such interference from another country to secure re-election in his second.

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