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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 July 2018

Voters will judge Trump on the economy, not on his moral or constitutional values 

If middle-income Americans feel they are better off, the US president will win a second term, writes Gavin Esler

US President Donald Trump is unlikely to be impeached. Carlos Barria / Reuters
US President Donald Trump is unlikely to be impeached. Carlos Barria / Reuters

For those unimpressed by the US president, here is tomorrow’s news: Donald Trump will remain in the White House for quite a while. How do I know this? Because no US president in history has ever been removed from office by impeachment. Never, ever.

The supposed impeachment “case” against Mr Trump grabs headlines, encourages his enemies and journalistic wittering but faces insurmountable problems. Critics cite a stack of probable “high crimes and misdemeanours” – impeachable offences.

The Mueller investigation is picking off former Trump aides and associates to build a case around those prepared to save their own skins by cooperating with the FBI. Robert Mueller – and others – are examining in detail the business dealings of the Trump family, including the president. And politically Mr Trump risks becoming a Lilliputian president – or as Richard Nixon memorably called the US in 1970, a “pitiful helpless giant” – tied down by inquiries and unable to do much beyond tweeting his frustration and attacking what he claims is a conspiracy against him.

That might all be very entertaining (or depressing to those of us who value American leadership) but none of this amounts, at least so far, to a credible impeachment resulting in his removal from office.

The reason is simple. Impeachment sounds like a high-minded legal and constitutional process. It’s not. It’s bloody-minded, raw politics. It appears to be about right and wrong. It’s not. It’s about numbers and votes.

I chaired a discussion with US scholars last week in London’s British Library on precisely this topic. Presidents endure scandals but mostly survive them, often because they have plenty of practice.

There are three main categories: sex scandals, financial corruption scandals and constitutional disagreements about power. The sex scandals sell newspapers but as Bill Clinton, Grover Cleveland and others have proven, they do not bring down presidents.

Besides, Mr Trump’s sexual proclivities were well-known to voters before they elected him to the White House. The corruption allegations (dodgy dealings with Russians, paying off Stormy Daniels and other money matters) might eventually produce a conviction and taint the presidency but Trump supporters tend to believe that their hero is “too rich to be bought” and will almost certainly stick with him regardless of the outcome of investigations.

Besides, Trump voters regard dubious agreements and transactions as the normal business of Washington and at times, the normal business of business. That leaves impeachment caused by some kind of constitutional malfeasance.

Mr Trump recently tweeted that he has the absolute right to pardon himself, an assertion which many US scholars believe could be seen as an abuse of power and lead to impeachment under article II, section 2 of the US constitution. It confers pardon authority on the president and the “power to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the US, except in cases of impeachment”.

But while some politicians need friends, Mr Trump needs enemies. He appears to be taking his cue on surviving enemy attacks by using Mr Clinton's method of taking his case over the heads of Congress and straight to the American people.

Mr Clinton lied under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and was impeached in the House of Representatives but crucially, his Republican critics did not have the votes in the Senate to remove him. He survived by bypassing Congress and the media and appealing directly to Americans.

Hillary Clinton claimed her husband was the victim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”. Mr Trump uses Clinton-style rhetoric when he tweets of a liberal “witchhunt” and derides accusations as conspiracies generated by a “fake news” obsessed media.

Mr Trump and his Democrat enemies will undoubtedly remember that Mr Clinton ended his post-impeachment presidency more popular than when it began. Mindful Democrats recognise that they themselves will be punished for embarking on a doomed impeachment campaign.

There is one further method to remove a president, the 25th amendment to the US constitution. But this demands that the Trump cabinet – appointed by Mr Trump, of course – and Vice President Mike Pence, also chosen by Mr Trump, would agree to dump their patron. That will not happen.

And so while impeachment talk invigorates Democrats and Republicans this summer and will probably continue throughout the Trump presidency, it will most likely come to nothing.

Democrats might win control of the House of Representatives in November’s elections, which gives them more leverage to pursue Mr Trump and frustrate his plans. But for Mr Trump, that could even be a bonus. He has few coherent policies and plenty of slogans. A hostile Democratic Congress will allow him to complain about “the swamp” and blame “the Washington elite” for all his many failures to come.

Voters will judge Mr Trump’s presidency not on morality or constitutionality but on the economy. If trade wars and conflict cause the US economy to weaken, the Democrats have a chance in 2020.

But if middle-income Americans feel they are better off, Mr Trump will win a second term.

And here’s another possibility. Might President Unpredictable decide at the last minute that he prefers Mar-a-Lago to Pennsylvania Avenue? Might, in classic Trump fashion, this oddball president decide not to run in 2020 because he wants to spend more time with his money?

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter

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