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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

While Teflon Trump might cause grievance, the alternative is worse

Would the world be prepared instead for Pence, who would be the most far right president since the 1920s?

Will the US electorate give president Donald Trump the red card? Mandel Ngan / AFP
Will the US electorate give president Donald Trump the red card? Mandel Ngan / AFP

When Donald Trump was campaigning for the presidency, he promised that if elected, he would win so much that the American people might even tire of winning. Something he has certainly won at, and “bigly” (or “big league” – the precise adverb he habitually used has never been clear), is getting away with more than any US president in living memory.

His Teflon qualities became apparent during the campaign when, to widespread astonishment, the release of the Access Hollywood tape on which he was heard bragging that he could get away with sexually assaulting women failed to tank his candidacy.

Since then we have had “alternative facts”, a bewildering turnover of key White House staff, public fights with and puerile name-calling of, some of America’s most prominent former office holders as well as foreign leaders, a string of former Trump associates taking plea deals after legal investigations, accusations of obstruction of justice and lurid stories of bizarre and outrageous behaviour by the president and members of his circle.

“Fear and fury” has, to a certain extent, become normalised, not least because one cannot continue to be shocked when someone who is bound to shock lives up to expectations. The result is that the bar for what Mr Trump can do and still continue to occupy the Oval Office has been raised so high that the recent brushfire of suggestions that he might be impeached are completely wide of the mark.

Any other president would have had to resign if a fraction of the same allegations had come out, including breaking campaign finance laws.

Not, however, Mr Trump. The former reality TV star, the implausible contender who could never be elected president until he was, appears to be a cartoonish character, whose misdeeds belong in a parallel universe in which he could, as he once said: “Stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.”

This is partly because that sense of shame that would have reduced others to a state of mortified embarrassment appears to be completely lacking in Mr Trump. It’s also because many of his supporters recognise him as belonging to an entirely different class of leader, in which breaking the boundaries of what was previously thought acceptable carries no penalty.

As the Fox News commentator Dan Gainor put it: “Americans don’t want to impeach a president for something he might have done that they don’t care about and happened before he ever took office.”

This is in itself a remarkable change. “Character” was once deemed all important. Several past would-be presidents – such as senators Gary Hart and John Edwards – saw their careers crash after allegations of marital indiscretions. As for the payments, Mr Trump just shrugs them off. “Almost everybody that runs for office has campaign violations,” he said last week.

But Mr Gainor was also arguing that this was why Democrats didn’t want to start impeachment proceedings – because that would rebound and benefit the Republicans in November’s midterm congressional elections.

This illuminates a key point about impeachment. Many seem to think that it is a purely legal process: that if you are caught stealing, you will be prosecuted, and so too if a president commits an offence worthy of impeachment then he will be impeached. Not so. In reality it is highly political and politicised – which is why it is so rare. Only two US presidents, Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton, have ever been impeached and both were acquitted by the Senate.

According to the US constitution, the relevant official must have committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. What might fall under the last two categories is not clear. Some think that concealing an affair just before an election, as Mr Trump is accused of doing, meets the criteria. But it is a matter of opinion.

Further, because impeachment is a series of events in both Houses of Congress that must be authorised by committees just to get going, elected politicians must actually want to target an official in this way. There is nothing compelling them to do so. And for impeachment to be successful, more than half the House of Representatives and 67 out of 100 senators must vote in favour. It is a very high threshold indeed.

So while Republicans control both the House and Senate – and unless they suffer an absolutely cataclysmic reversal in November’s elections – the prospects of Mr Trump being impeached are approximately zero, unless a really serious charge, such as evidence that the Russians do actually have something on him, emerges. But, as Mr Trump correctly says, so far there has been no proof of collusion whatsoever.

There have already been attempts to start proceedings and the subject of impeachment became a hot topic more than a year ago in connection with Mr Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey. But nothing substantial has come of it and nor is it likely to do so in the near future.

All of this will be disappointing to those for whom Mr Trump’s very existence is a daily grievance. To which the only response can be: perhaps they should be glad their hopes for his early departure have been dashed. For no Mr Trump would mean the elevation of Mike Pence. Would the world be prepared for possibly the most far right US president since the 1920s, a man accused of being in the pockets of big donors and of divisive religiosity (never mind a poor record of being governor of Indiana)?

He truly would be an accidental president. And the frying pan, it should be recalled, is still a better place to be than the fire – however unpleasant it may be.

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia