Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 February 2020

There will be no winners in the US impeachment proceedings

By rushing to impeach because of their own election calendars, Democrats are committing a significant blunder

Donald Trump is the third president in US history to be impeached. Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP 
Donald Trump is the third president in US history to be impeached. Scott Olson / Getty Images / AFP 

The first week of US President Donald Trump's impeachment trial concluded on Saturday morning, and none of the main players seem poised for a meaningful victory. The question is rather how much each stands to lose.

The Democratic "managers" (in effect, prosecutors) from the House of Representatives, which impeached Mr Trump in December, presented the case against the president on two counts: abuse of power by allegedly attempting to leverage military aid to Ukraine to secure an investigation announcement into the son of one of his rivals, Joe Biden; and obstruction of Congress for withholding documents and trying to block major testimony.

Because of that obstruction, there were significant holes in the prosecution’s case, but, overall, the factual narrative against Mr Trump was overwhelming and largely unchallenged.

On Saturday, the president’s defence team began its own presentation, which was strikingly thin on facts but long on categorical declarations and misleading claims – for instance, the allegation that Republicans were not allowed to participate in House hearings in secured areas when, in fact, they were.

Public opinion remains about equally divided for and against convicting Mr Trump. Consequently, Republican senators don’t seem prepared to resist Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's push for a trial without witnesses, documents or any fact-finding.

The president will almost certainly remain in office, but he will be badly tarnished. Senate Republicans could hardly appear more compromised and cynical

The Senate appears unwilling to demand testimony from key figures, such as former national security advisor John Bolton – whose unpublished memoir reportedly confirms that Mr Trump withheld Ukraine aid to secure a smear against the Bidens – acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and others, or to demand the documentary paper trail that would irrefutably demonstrate what happened.

Republicans are adamantly opposed to such evidence because the case is already extremely strong and most of the factual assertions are not being challenged. Instead, they are simply denounced and dismissed.

The last thing Republicans want is to confront the mounting evidence, including text messages and recordings recently released by Lev Parnas, which seem to corroborate the case against Mr Trump.

House managers’ arguments that by withholding military aid to Ukraine Mr Trump was acting in his own interests, and not those of the United States, were almost irrefutable. This is not a legitimate policy dispute, as his lawyers claim, but the hijacking of policy by personal politics.

But Republicans do not want Mr Trump removed and, unless compelled by public opinion, will acquit him as soon as possible. The danger posed to them by the existing evidence explains why they want no further information whatsoever. It cannot possibly help them.

Yet this will not be a victory for Mr Trump. He will have been exonerated not in fair or open proceedings, but through the modern-day US equivalent of Stalin-era Moscow political show trials in which the verdict is a foregone conclusion and most factual evidence is prohibited.

He will claim vindication, but under the circumstances, it will be hollow. He will live under the shadow, not only of impeachment, but of acquittal through farce. If Mr McConnell gets his way, this will be the first of scores of impeachment trials of US officials – including those of Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – that excludes any witness testimony.

Mr Trump will enjoy a technical, legal acquittal, but face a moral, and probably historical, conviction.

Many Senate Republicans are also worried. Several are facing re-election in swing states that may not reward their adamant refusal to face the facts or consider the truth. Mr McConnell may not care, but a number of these Republican senators probably realise they are helping to badly damage the US constitution and political system.

It is not just that they are conducting a sham of a trial. Worse is that they will be effectively endorsing Mr Trump's behaviour regarding Ukraine and the election, and essentially greenlighting future presidents to leverage all manner of foreign policy tools for their personal political benefit.

Mr Trump's lawyers claim a statutory crime is required for impeachment and are casting the whole process as an attack on democracy and elections. That's not only constitutional nonsense, it is an unprecedented assault on the impeachment powers of Congress.

If affirmed, Mr Trump’s actions would constitute one of the most astonishing expansions of the power of the presidency, at the expense of Congress, in the country's history.

Republicans surely tell themselves they will just reverse their position if a Democratic president ever did something like this. But it is not that simple. Like it or not, they are setting a precedent that could hardly be more dangerous or less attuned to the spirit of the Constitution.

But by rushing to impeachment because of their own primary and election calendars, Democrats are committing a significant blunder.

Their political hastiness has contributed mightily to this constitutionally cancerous development, as I have repeatedly warned in these pages, and many others also foresaw.

Unless there is a sudden reversal by Senate Republicans, in which they vote to hear testimony and examine documents, the only thing that could recuperate this impeachment trial for the Democrats would be if it can be said to have contributed to a victory in November.

But the political impact of this process is extremely hard to predict. It might, and certainly should, further tarnish Mr Trump's image with many voters. But it also might enrage and rally his base, and stoke the bitter national divisions on which he depends.

This is only the third presidential impeachment trial in US history, and seems set to be the shortest, least credible and most insubstantial. It may not have any long-term political impact at all, especially if the lack of movement in the opinion polls over the past week is anything to go by.

The president will almost certainly remain in office, but he will be badly tarnished. Senate Republicans could hardly appear more compromised and cynical. And the Democrats, yet again, will look like losers.

If there are any winners in this fiasco, they are hiding brilliantly.

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

Updated: January 28, 2020 09:38 AM

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