As allegations mount up, where are the checks and balances on those in power?
If there is no pushback against Trump’s behaviour, there will be a new set of norms and expectations
Americans face an historic test of their much-vaunted political freedom. At stake are the fundamental norms of democratic governance, and the outcome is greatly in doubt.
The crisis is both complex and extremely simple. Last week, a dizzying torrent of revelations emerged at an alarming frequency.
But underneath the whirlwind of details, Mr Trump stands accused of leveraging the vast power of his office and the weight of US foreign policy for personal political gain, especially seeking foreign investigations against a likely 2020 election opponent; and of soliciting interference in domestic politics over several months from Ukraine by effectively making military aid and potential presidential-level meetings for that beleaguered country conditional upon investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who once served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
All this is thoroughly documented in a White House memo, a whistleblower complaint and text messages between senior administration officials. At least one additional whistleblower has reportedly stepped forward and “multiple” others might apparently follow.
The CIA’s head lawyer Courtney Simmons Elwood even made a criminal referral to the Justice Department as far back as August 14 – a complaint that appears to have been summarily dismissed – about Mr Trump’s conduct, based on the whistleblower's account.
It is not a question of whether Mr Trump did this or even if he broke the law. The American system must instead determine if he abused the powers of his office and violated standards of acceptable presidential conduct.
Meanwhile, not only is there no evidence against the Bidens, there isn’t even a concrete accusation. Mr Trump and his allies speak vaguely about “corruption” but they offer no specific allegations. This is nasty innuendo, apparently unsupported by any evidence.
Mr Trump and his aides are also fixated on two preposterous conspiracy theories. The first holds that Ukraine rather than Russia intervened in the 2016 US election. The second imagines that the Russia investigation was a set-up by anti-Trump “deep state” US officials working with British, Australian and possibly Italian agents, who supposedly lured Mr Trump’s convicted former aide George Papadopoulos into a trap laid by Maltese-born academic Joseph Mifsud, who has denied the accusation.
Chasing after such follies is now a key priority of US foreign policy.
Additionally, Mr Trump last week publicly urged China to investigate the Bidens. He also allegedly made similar requests of Britain, Australia and Italy on these matters. So after years of insisting that there was “no collusion” between the Trump campaign and Russia in 2016, Mr Trump is openly attempting collusion with numerous countries for 2020. Now, as then, his defenders claim he is just joking but that is absurd.
An enraged Mr Trump has described the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry as a “coup”, branded his critics “traitors” and even warned of “civil war” if he is constitutionally and lawfully removed from office.
He insists he cannot be criminally investigated by either Congress or authorities in various US states such as New York, where prosecutors are trying to examine his taxes, effectively placing himself above the law. And he has reportedly extended that supposed impunity to subordinates by offering them pardons if they break the law at his behest, such as by seizing land to build his border wall with Mexico or shooting at migrants’ legs, according to the New York Times.
If this unprecedented behaviour is not punished, any abuses of power will intensify, probably exponentially
The Trump presidency has gone through three phases in its three years.
The first was marked by uncertainty and incompetence. The second mainly reflected traditional Republican priorities like tax cuts and confirming conservative judges.
But in the third year, Mr Trump is unrestrained, newly confident and increasingly aggressive and transgressive. He is effectively daring everyone: “Stop me if you can.”
While public support for impeachment has significantly increased, his base remains mostly loyal and unmoved, with only three Senate Republicans so far expressing concern about the president’s actions. It is not clear what could possibly break that spell.
As Mr Trump notes, at present House Democrats can impeach him but have no path for getting the Republican-controlled Senate to convict and remove him from office. And, while he looks increasingly vulnerable in next year’s election, there’s no guarantee he will lose.
Yet if this unprecedented behaviour is not punished and Mr Trump remains unchecked and unrebuked, any abuses of power will intensify, probably exponentially. Far worse, a new set of norms, expectations and precedents will have been established and effectively rewarded.
Misusing state authority to smear opponents, inviting foreign governments to interfere in US politics, blatantly gaming the system and severely eroding checks on presidential power will be hard to reverse. If there is no effective pushback, this is how future presidents will behave – simply because they can.
The Republican Party has completely succumbed, with next year’s nominating convention carefully rigged to eliminate any hint of dissent. But broader American institutions are now buckling under the pressure.
What looms is not the victory of a noxious ideology. That would be bad enough.
This is far more tragic. The venerable foundations of the American republic are being shaken to their very core by nothing more than the petty and personal pursuit of power.
Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
Updated: October 7, 2019 08:03 PM