Trump shouldn't be impeached – Americans knew what they were getting when they voted for him
The US president is an unfortunate choice of leader, but bad electoral decisions are a fundamental risk of democracy
The improbable presidency of Donald Trump – during which few norms of etiquette, decorum and propriety have remained unchallenged – appears to have, once again, pushed the boundaries of what the current occupant of the White House can get away with. Last Friday, prosecutors in the southern district of New York said that Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, made illegal hush-money payments “to influence the 2016 presidential election… in co-ordination with and at the direction of Individual 1” – a codename that surely refers to Mr Trump. Then special counsel Robert Mueller made public details of contacts between Mr Cohen and high-ranking Russians, which, if undertaken with Mr Trump’s knowledge, would strengthen the case that there was collusion with the Kremlin and could expose the president to prosecution under various laws.
Mr Cohen has struck a deal and is going down for sure. Now, some are salivating at the prospect of impeachment or of Mr Trump being otherwise brought low by the law. “Is this the beginning of the end for Trump?” was the headline on a New York Times column whose authors clearly hoped that it was. But I do not believe that Mr Trump will be prosecuted or impeached. And nor, for the good of America, do I think he should.
To begin with, the Department of Justice guidelines are that no sitting president should be indicted. But, even if that were not the case, another of Mr Trump’s lawyers, the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, cites legal precedent to argue that the payments to the two women who claim to have had affairs with Mr Trump do not count as campaign finance violations. Another ally, the Republican senator Rand Paul, agrees. Further, he says that the US has “over-criminalised” campaign finance and that the “thousands and thousands of rules” make it too easy for a candidate to slip up inadvertently.
So, prosecution on that front is, firstly, not going to happen and, secondly, arguably not deserved. As for impeachment, with the Republican Party in almost total capitulation to Mr Trump, it is extremely unlikely that enough GOP senators would abandon their leader in order for it to pass the upper house with the necessary two-thirds majority.
There are plenty who feel strongly that Mr Trump should face all manner of legal action. But both the American people and the Republican Party arguably set the bar at a new low when the latter rallied around him and the former elected him. For they did so in the knowledge that this was a candidate who had boasted during his campaign of committing sexual assault. They knew that he was a braggart, had a flexible relationship with the truth, and was a stranger to the deep policy analysis of which politicians of any experience should be capable.
In many other countries, such knowledge would instantly have doomed any attempt to reach high office. Still, the Republicans accepted Mr Trump as their candidate and sufficient people voted for him to win the electoral college – which is all that counts, when it comes to taking the White House.
His core supporters knew that he had little respect for the rules. Indeed, they voted for him precisely because he promised to blow up the system. So, if he were to be brought down by what they regard as side issues, the outrage that would follow could easily lead to deepening divisions in American society and even civil unrest. Riots and deaths could not be ruled out. On Sunday, Angus King, an independent senator allied to the Democrats, acknowledged the possibility of this reaction in an interview with NBC. “If impeachment is moved forward on the evidence that we have now, at least a third of the country would think it was just political revenge and a coup against the president,” he said. “That wouldn’t serve us at all well.”
It is worth pointing out that the president and his supporters are correct when they insist that no definitive evidence at all of collusion between Mr Trump and the Kremlin has so far come to light. And just as with Brexit, campaigners, lawmakers and crusading journalists who have been tenaciously pursuing claims of Russian interference are missing the point. Even if they – and Mr Mueller – were to be vindicated, Russia is not the reason Britain voted to leave the EU and neither is it the reason why Mr Trump was elected.
Anger with perceived establishments and elites that appeared to care too little for the economic plight and concerns – justified or not – of the white working class in particular swayed both votes. Of course there were many other issues; in the case of the US, the unrelatability and unlikeability of Hillary Clinton was another important factor.
But the vein of popular resentment that Mr Trump tapped into was real. Who can doubt it when we see so many similar examples around the world? And of the new wave of populists, Donald Trump is king.
The eruption that could follow his removal by what his supporters would view as either sneaky sleight of hand or trivial rule-breaking is not to be lightly countenanced. This is why I am with Mr King when he said: “You’re overturning the will of the voters… The best way to solve a problem like this, to me, is elections.”
If that means that until 2020 at least, Americans must live under what one commentator has called “a criminal presidency”, they have only themselves to blame. They knew enough about the man they elected. Does this undermine the rule of law and set a fearful precedent? Yes. The marvel is that knowing that and more, they just might elect him again less than two years’ time.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia
Updated: December 10, 2018 05:53 PM