America’s President Donald Trump, arguably the world’s most powerful person, is in the dock. He is accused of having crossed the legal red line in influencing Ukraine to interfere in US’s domestic politics.
This could cost Mr Trump the presidency and bring opprobrium to America’s highest office, which hasn’t seen a presidential dismissal through a successful impeachment process for more than 150 years. More recently, in the late 1990s, President Bill Clinton was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky but was not ultimately convicted or removed from office. Mr Trump might not get away as easily.
The current impeachment proceedings against President Trump just got more serious earlier this week following the damaging testimony of the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who revealed that the President and his coterie had indeed compelled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July this year to publicly announce investigations against Mr Trump’s key Democratic rival Joe Biden, former US vice-president, and his son Hunter. This was intended to damage Mr Biden’s bid for the presidency in the 2020 US elections.
Mr Sondland, a Trump appointee, dropped what amounted to a bombshell by disclosing that the Trump administration had withheld an invitation to the Ukrainian President and delayed in releasing $400 million in military aid until Ukraine agreed to open up investigations against Mr Biden and his son.
Mr Sondland admitted there was a quid pro quo. The deal was that President Zelensky had to publicly announce government investigations into the Biden duo’s role in the murky affairs of the Ukrainian energy company Burismo Holdings, which was investigated in the past for money laundering. In exchange, Mr Trump would host Mr Zelensky in Washington and give him the goodies he wanted.
The details of the charges and counter-charges are complicated and open up a window to a very different set of issues. The pertinent part as far as the presidency is concerned is that President Trump is now accused of using the Ukraine government, a foreign entity, to influence the next presidential elections. Mr Sondland’s testimony also implicates a number of Trump aides, including his high-profile lawyer Rudy Giuliani and secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Mr Sondland claimed: “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.” Does all this now suggest that Mr Trump is doomed? Not necessarily. For, although Mr Sondland’s revelations clearly points to a presidential misdemeanour, it is not necessarily sufficient cause for impeachment.
This is a question that will only be decided by the US Congress which must vote to decide whether or not it is an impeachable offence. While the Republicans have a majority in the Senate, where the impeachment proceedings will ultimately end up, the House of Representatives is controlled by Democrats, who detest Republican President Trump more than anything else in the world. Also, now it will be difficult if not impossible for the Republican-controlled Senate to ignore Mr Sondland’s testimony.
In the House of Representatives, much depends on Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House. If she and her inner circle decide to go for the jugular, Mr Trump will find it hard to survive. The impeachment process has been likened to a circus with the House Intelligence Committee chairman, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, leading the show. He called President Trump a “charlatan” and vowed to send him back to the “golden throne he came from”.
Some in the US believe it is far from certain Mr Trump will be convicted in a trial in the Senate. After Mr Trump’s exoneration in the Russiagate scandal, and the strong indications of a conspiracy by the Deep State, Mr Trump could argue persuasively that the Ukraine affair is no different. So, once again politics will prevail. And the road to impeachment is long and complicated. Only a betting man can say whether Mr Trump will ultimately get impeached or not. It is also possible that the Republican leadership might ask or compel Mr Trump to step down to avoid a trial.
However, Congressman Schiff has managed to raise the larger issue of democracy and one that resonates with most Americans. “The most grave threat to the life and health of our democracy comes from within -- from a President without ethical compass, without understanding of or devotion to our Constitution. There is nothing more dangerous than an unethical President who believes that he is above the law,” Mr Schiff declared recently.
It is clear Mr Schiff will not relent in hunting Mr Trump -- he would perhaps not have started the circus in the first place without Ms Pelosi’s green light. Apart from anything else, the Democrats are also looking to the 2020 elections, and anything that weakens Mr Trump’s chances would be welcome.
However, despite President Trump being a disruptive force in American politics who has clearly divided that nation like never before, he is not without his support base which remains strong and committed. As President Trump himself tweeted, the US stock market has hit its highest level ever during his presidency, and Mr Trump has warned if he gets impeached it would lead to the biggest fall ever.
This could be hype, for which Mr Trump is well known, but the truth is that the US economy under him has been doing well despite trade issues with China, a global slowdown and tensions in the Middle East. Growth remains steady, unemployment is at its lowest in many years and businesses are delighted with the deregulatory zeal of his government.
President Trump’s greatest achievement perhaps is taking China head on. By precipitating a trade war, he is the first US President to have made it clear that continuing with an unsustainable level of trade deficit — one that threatens to permanently leave the US in debt to China — is unacceptable. The Chinese have blamed Mr Trump for being unfair and disruptive but have done little to roll back their protectionist policies that insulate their local industries from worldwide competition.
At the same time, President Trump’s ill-considered statements on race, foreigners, religion and a host of other issues have appalled a huge section of Americans, who still cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that someone like Mr Trump can be the President of their country.
America’s greatest strength, however, is the checks and balances that have been built into the system. The Trump impeachment suggests that the system hasn’t broken down. This could just prove to be his nemesis....