Nothing can kill a presidency like impeachment hearings. What House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has set into motion will be the commencement of high political drama which will see US President Donald Trump losing control of the narrative and being browbeaten by his political enemies for months to come.
As the vultures circle and the pack closes in on what is arguably one of the most arrogant presidents in US history, Trump will spend more time consulting his lawyers than he will on making a success of his domestic agenda. The nation will be gripped by the unfolding drama, which is likely to expose far more evidence of Trump’s misdemeanours than the nation is aware of.
The stakes are high with the potential to make history, as Trump could actually end up being the first US president impeached and removed from office. There are only three past presidents who have been subjected to impeachment hearings - Andrew Johnson in 1868, Richard Nixon in 1974, and Bill Clinton in 1998. Johnson escaped impeachment by one vote, Nixon resigned before he could be impeached, and Clinton was acquitted and remained in office.
What makes Trump’s situation particularly dire is the fact that he stands accused of violating his oath of office by putting the country’s national security second to his own political goals. In essence, he solicited the help of a foreign government - specifically Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky - to launch corruption investigations into his political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, regarding accusations of corruption, which had already been dismissed.
Such behaviour was a clear abuse of power, all the more so considering that prior to the infamous phone call to Zelensky, Trump had withheld $400 million (R6 trillion) worth of US military aid from Ukraine which had already been approved by majorities of both parties in Congress.
Trump was, in effect, empowering a foreign government to influence the outcome of US elections, which even veteran Republican Senator Mitt Romney has called “deeply troubling”.
As if that wasn’t enough of an abuse of power, Trump’s White House then blocked the whistle-blower’s complaint from being forwarded to Congress as it is supposed to be by law. The complaint was lodged with the Inspector General of Intelligence by an intelligence official, which was then sent to the Director of Intelligence. The complaint was then supposed to be forwarded to the intelligence committees in Congress but it was blocked from moving forward by the Trump administration.
The framers of the American constitution had set up the impeachment mechanism for precisely such a moment - to prevent a president from subverting the rule of law or pursuing his own self-interest at the expense of the public’s welfare. What many of Trump’s detractors argue is that he has attacked the bedrock of American democracy.
An additional 60 Democrats have come out in support of the impeachment inquiry, which brings the number to more than 200 that would like to see the process move forward. What will unfold is a formal rule-bound process whereby six House Committees have been instructed by Pelosi to begin the formal inquiry. There will be hearings where witnesses and evidence will be brought forward, and then formal charges will be formulated. The House of Representatives will first have to consider the evidence and decide on the charges.
The House of Representatives now has a majority of Democrats, having picked up 40 seats in the 2018 elections, and are likely to approve the charges against Trump following the impeachment hearings. The charges will then move to the Senate where the Chief Justice will preside over the trial while members of the House act as prosecuting attorneys. If two-thirds of the Senate vote in favour of convicting Trump, then he will be removed from office. The Senate will weigh the evidence and make a determination as to whether Trump can be considered a danger to American democracy. The answer to that question will come down to how loyal Trump’s Republican allies are to his Presidency.
Already some of Trump’s fiercest critics emanate from within his own party. Former Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain has not held back on his criticism of Trump saying, “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egoism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.”
At the end of the day, members of Congress will assess which way the political winds are blowing, and if they do not seem to be blowing in Trump’s direction, they will be concerned about the public opinion of their constituents. But Trump will do everything to rile up his base against what he characterises as a witch hunt.
But, the impeachment process itself is important for the transparency of American democracy, particularly to unearth any behind the scenes developments which have taken place in violation of the constitution. Unlike ordinary Congressional hearings where government officials have to answer for abuses of power, this time it is the president’s position which is on the line, and he will not be able to hide behind his underlings.
The process of interrogation will make Trump and his officials far more cautious in what they say and do, as everything will be under a microscope. In this way, they will be more constrained from using the same type of tactics Trump is being accused of, and the onus will be on the president to prove he has not acted above the law.
What is of particular concern, however, is that Trump will have every reason to try and divert public attention and media coverage away from the impeachment hearings, and the one way American presidents have often tried to do this is to start a war in a far off place.
There are still plenty of hawks in the US administration and in the Israeli Knesset who would like to see a war started with Iran. Even though Trump has seemed largely reticent to go down that road given the massive military conflagration it would likely unleash, there is no telling what the President could decide once his back is up against the wall domestically. There are many other theatres of conflict and tension that Trump may feel more confident about staging a US military intervention in the hopes of changing the narrative.
One possible scenario would be that Trump turns his attention to the military options that he says are still on the table with regards to Venezuela. With approximately 65 countries having already recognised Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s political opponent Juan Guaido as the de facto president, Trump may feel emboldened to move forward with a protracted military option that will capture local and global headlines and make him look like the US president who restored democracy to a Latin American country suffering under an authoritarian dictatorship.
Whatever course the White House takes, there will be high political drama to come, but it will also encourage American politicians to flex their political muscles to safeguard their democracy and constitution.