by Salome Dermati,
On Wednesday, December 18, Donald J. Trump became the third US President to be impeached. The House of Representatives approved the two articles of impeachment against him, the first for “abuse of power,” in a vote of 230-197, and the second for “obstruction of Congress” passed by 229 to 198. The basis of the accusations dates back to July 25 and the infamous call between Trump and Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The US president is alleged to have withheld millions of dollars in military aid, much needed by the European state, in return for a public announcement on investigations on 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. By doing so, Mr. Trump solicited foreign interference in a domestic political election in order to weaken a possible political opponent. In addition, as the official impeachment procedure began, the White House repeatedly blocked staff members from testifying and refused to release subpoenaed documents.
Even though impeachment was not widely popular amongst Democrats, in the beginning, the party has unified and presented a strong case against the sitting President. Section 5 of Article II in the US Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Notwithstanding the vagueness and complexity, esteemed law professors have highlighted the essence behind such violations, i.e., threats against public trust and the degradation of democratic processes. The Democrats’ strategy thus far has focused on presenting Trump’s behavior as posing a real threat to constitutional values and the rule of law. On the one hand, they argue he explicitly requested help from his counterpart, most notably by saying “I’d like you to do us a favor” during the July call. Not only is this action deemed as criminal, but it also raises concerns about future elections and the interference of foreign powers. Moreover, the Party emphasizes the administration’s refusal to comply with the rules of the procedure and facilitate the investigation. Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, has explained that “The President of the United States was willing to sacrifice our national security by withholding support for a critical strategic partner at war in order to improve his re-election prospects. […] But for the courage of someone willing to blow the whistle, he would have gotten away with it. […] Instead, he got caught. He tried to cheat and he got caught.”
During the House voting on Wednesday, many Democratic representatives gave powerful, even emotional, speeches in favor of impeachment. Although no new arguments were raised, it was their last attempt to reach out to the public and fire up their sentiment. Adam Schiff denounced the president’s unethical conduct and mentioned the lack of courage of those who are not willing to “stand against” Mr. Trump. Jerry Nadler, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, once again invoked their responsibility to protect democracy, national security, and the constitution. Alabama representative Terri Sewell stated that “No one comes to Congress to impeach a president. However, the President has given this Congress no choice.”
Impeachment, however, still remains a controversial issue for Democrats, as evidenced by the four cases of defection in the voting procedure. Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey became a Republican because of his personal stance against impeachment. Collin Peterson, who was elected in a conservative district in Minnesota, voted against both articles. In addition, Jared Golden of Maine voted in favor of the first article and against the second. Tulsi Gabbard, a Hawaiian representative and a candidate for the 2020 presidential race, merely stated “present”.
A day after the voting, the issue was brought up for discussion in the 6th Democratic Debate in California. Nevertheless, the seven participating candidates, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elisabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Joe Biden, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang, seemed unwilling to dedicate a lot of time. The only worthy of mentioning statement was made by Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar who compared the current impeachment to Watergate because of the involvement of senior White House officials and former President Richard Nixon’s “top men,” in the scandal.
On the other side of the aisle, and in a somewhat alternate reality, the Republicans have stood firmly by Mr. Trump. Their arguments rely primarily on the process, not the essence or facts behind the accusations. They have labeled the impeachment a “coup,” a “sham,” a “shame,” and, most famously, a “witch hunt.” They criticize Democrats as partisans who wanted to go against the President personally ever since he took office, a concern raised, for example, by Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee. Likewise, they caution that by “lowering the bar” almost anyone could be faced with impeachment in the future. Furthermore, they remind the President’s democratic and fair election and they praise him for acting solely in favor of the US public, all the while he is being targeted by the “swamp,” meaning the Washington establishment. Another argument they present is his lawful conduct with Zelensky. In fact, there was not a quid pro quo, given that the Ukrainian President was never pressured or coerced and that the military aid was given after a few weeks. What is more, the administration’s retention of the sum was claimed to be justified because of Ukraine’s corrupt past.
In accord with the aforementioned, Representative Brian Babin of Texas has insisted that Democrats “make all future elections invalid…[and] believe they are entitled to rule us.” More recently, people are drawing a parallel between Jesus, Pearl Harbor, and Trump. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, for example, spoke to the press on December 19 and called the impeachment a “betrayal” to the nation.
The stakes are too high and even Democrats have recognized the huge risk they took. One of their primary goals is to win the 2020 general election and impeachment could grant them that wish. This is a monumental period, having been repeated only two times in the past, which will undoubtedly hurt Trump’s reputation, even if to a small extent. Indeed, Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine, recently came out against the President, although he had gained 81% of the white Christian evangelical vote in 2016.
On the other hand, impeachment could work in favor of Mr. Trump. Firstly, as said previously, the accusations have had low popular support and still remain unknown to a large segment of the population which does not follow the news devotedly. Moreover, most states do not have a majority in favor of impeachment and the Senate, which is due to begin the trial next month where a ⅔ majority is needed, is controlled by Republicans. At the same time, swing districts that voted for the President in 2016, but elected a Democrat as a representative last year, will be critical in next year’s elections.
Not only does Trump still hold the strong power of his base, but also historically most incumbent presidents are re-elected, particularly when the economy has shown improvement. Nowadays, unemployment has reached the lowest point in half a decade at 3,6% and a renewed and more advantageous version of NAFTA, a trade agreement between Canada, the USA, and Mexico is being renegotiated. Lastly, in the unlikely scenario in which Trump is ultimately removed from office, Vicepresident Mike Pence would take over and the appointed Republican judges would still hold their position.
The US is faced with one of the most crucial political crises in its recent history. Three decades after Bill Clinton’s impeachment, people are forced to make a difficult decision that will significantly impact both the status quo and the future political establishment. Mr. Trump has never been widely accepted, scoring one of the lowest approval ratings for a president. His fiery rhetoric, notorious past, and controversial policies make it even more challenging for politicians and voters alike to put aside their personal opinions and biases so as to draw a well-rounded and subjective conclusion that will benefit the country as a whole. Howbeit, it is unsure at this point how strong a bearing the procedure will have on next year’s presidential election, especially since the Democratic candidate has not yet been decided. Two things are certain; the integrity of the 2020 election has been compromised and the debate on foreign interference, which begins with the Mueller investigation, is nowhere near over.