BY SHASHI MALLA
There are now serious concerns about President Donald J. Trump as a person and his fitness for the high office of the President of the United States (POTUS). The highly respected daily newspaper The Washington Post has argued that it is high time to start impeachment proceedings. This would rein in a president who is daily undermining American ideals, and above all bring the debate about his fitness for office into Congress, where it rightfully belongs. At his inauguration on January 20, 2017 Trump had solemnly sworn to faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and, to the best of his ability, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. He has willfully not kept that promise.
The best and most cogent case for impeachment has been made to date by Yoni Appelbaum of The Atlantic (March 2019). He argues succinctly that Trump has mounted a concerted challenge to the paramount ‘separation of powers’, to the rule of law, and to the civil liberties enshrined in the American founding documents. He has purposefully inflamed America’s myriad divisions. Above all, he has set himself against the core American ideal, the principle that all Americans – of every race, gender, and creed – are created equal.
The late senator and former Republican presidential nominee John McCain said scathingly: “The damage inflicted by President Trump’s naiveté, egotism, false equivalence, and sympathy for autocrats is difficult to calculate.” The other recent Republican presidential nominee, the former governor and now senator Mick Romney wrote in January: “The president has not risen to the mantle of the office.”
With his oath of office, Trump had pledged to subordinate his private desires to the public interest, to serve the nation as a whole rather than any group or bloc within it. From the very start, Trump displayed no evidence that he understood these obligations. On the contrary, Appelbaum tellingly writes, “he has routinely privileged his self-interest above the responsibilities of the presidency. He has failed to disclose or divest himself from his extensive financial interests, instead using the platform of the presidency to promote them.” What is most troubling is that Trump continually demands that government officials put their loyalty to him ahead of their duty to the general public. When FBI director Comey refused to comply, he was fired. Trump thus behaves no better than an autocrat of a banana republic. However, his base venerates him like a tin god!
Trump has repeatedly trampled on the liberties guaranteed by the American Constitution. He has banned entry to the United States on the basis of ethnicity and religion. He has attacked the media as the “enemy of the people”. He has falsely alleged that the American electoral system is subject to massive fraud and rejected election results with which he disagreed. He still has not accepted that his opponent, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a margin of three million. In total his actions are an attack on the very foundations of US constitutional democracy and should be repulsed – sooner than later.
Appelbaum argues that it is high noon to trigger the mechanism – impeachment — that the framers of the Constitution had devised to constrain such a president like Trump who had gone haywire. They were concerned that a serving president could abuse his authority in ways that would undermine the democratic process and this had to be addressed immediately, and not wait for the electorate to pass judgment on the president and his shortcomings in the 2020 election. Trump had clearly subverted the rule of law and pursued his own self-interest at the expense of the general welfare. His continued tenure in office poses a grave threat to the republic!
The eminent Harvard professor of International Relations, Joseph Nye who coined the indispensable concept “soft power”, has said that Trump has a very negative effect on US foreign policy and certainly on American soft power around the world. Trump has become such a threat to American national security and interests that his removal has become of paramount importance.
“Impeachment, in fact, is a vital protection against the dangers a president like Trump poses,” argues Appelbaum convincingly. And crucially, it has many benefits: restoring the political health of the country and restoring the stability of the constitutional system. “Impeachment is a process, not an outcome, a rule-bound procedure for investigating a president, considering evidence, formulating charges, and deciding whether to continue on to trial.”
Trump’s critics, including many Democrats in Congress, are of the opinion that the House of Representatives, which now has a Democratic majority since the mid-term elections of November 2018, should no longer shirk its constitutional duty. It should without delay start a formal impeachment enquiry into President Trump, bringing the debate now raging in ‘the court of public opinion’ into Congress, where it rightfully and politically belongs. However, Nancy Pelosi the speaker of the House, has argued that it’s too early to talk about impeachment. The Democrats would like to wait for public opinion to turn decisively against Trump and then use impeachment to endorse that view.
But there are dangers in taking a wait-and-see policy. With each passing day, Trump further subverts America’s ideals and compromises policy. In an impeachment process, the House first votes to open an investigation. The hearings could take months. The full House votes again and with a simple majority (which the Democrats possess) charges are presented to the Senate (where the Republicans have the majority). The US Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate to remove the president from office. It is unlikely that this would be forthcoming, since the Senate Republicans will not easily break with President Trump.
However, considering that the amount of damage that Trump has already rendered to the American body politic the presidency can only gain in stature. Thus, “Trump’s bipartisan critics are not merely arguing that he has dishonored the presidency. The most serious charge is that he is attacking the bedrock of American democracy” (Appelbaum). The process of impeachment itself could influence public opinion, first by calling attention to the known facts; and second by discovering new evidence. Trump’s Republican support may wither away.
Even if Trump survives a conviction in the Senate, the impeachment process would henceforth safeguard the constitutional order. Once started, the advantages are impressive.
First, once an impeachment enquiry begins, the president loses control of the public discourse. The three presidents to be impeached in US history: Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton discovered this to their discomfort. Publicly, they could no longer influence the course of events in the impeachment process.
Second, Trump would be fighting for his political survival and could no longer pursue his harmful personal and public agenda.
Third, the process itself could discover new facts, and contribute in substantiating the already known ones.
Fourth, impeachment would provide the possibility to ‘let off steam’ and avoid the outburst of political violence. Trump has, after all, angered very many. Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers, had argued that a political system without a mechanism for removing the chief executive, provided the possibility for violence.
Finally, even if the Senate does not convict Trump, the mere fact of the impeachment process would severely ruin his political prospects, i.e. his capability of doing mischief would be finally removed. Johnson was rebuffed by both Republicans and Democrats and abandoned a second term. Nixon resigned before he could be convicted. Gerald Ford, his successor, failed in his attempt for reelection. Clinton survived the process and completed his second term, but left an electorate demanding change. The impeachment cost Al Gore (Clinton’s vice-president) the presidential election against George W. Bush, and probably also impacted Hilary Clinton’s bid.
No doubt, the impeachment process should only be started when a president’s betrayal of his basic duties becomes manifest. Trump has long reached – and overstepped – this threshold. House Democrats are shirking their duty for tactical reasons and ignoring the strategic narrative. Who says that history doesn’t repeat itself? There is an uncanny resemblance of the 45th US president (Trump) to the 17th (Andrew Johnson). The same The Atlantic magazine had this to say about Johnson in 1866:
The president of the United States has so singular a combination of defects for the
office of a constitutional magistrate, that he could have obtained the opportunity
to misrule the nation only by a visitation of Providence. Insincere as well as stubborn,
cunning as well as unreasonable, vain as well as ill-tempered, greedy of popularity as arbitrary in disposition, veering in his mind as well as fixed in his will, he unites in his character the seemingly opposite qualities of demagogue and autocrat” . . . he was “egotistic to the point of mental disease” and had become “the prey of intriguers and sycophants.” The case for persecution could not be more crystal clear and persuasive.
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