On 18 December, US President Donald Trump was impeached on two articles for “abuse of power” and “obstruction of Congress”.
Trump was accused of betraying his country by improperly pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations against Joe Biden, a 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate, and his son for his own political gain. This is a grave and far-reaching turn of events.
In the history of the US, two other presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Johnson was tried in a Senate trial in the late 19th century for “high crimes and misdemeanors”, while Clinton was tried for the same allegations but specifically for “lying under oath and the obstruction of justice”.
Both served the rest of their terms as they were acquitted during the Senate trial. Johnson was denied a second term nomination by his party, and Clinton was already serving his second term. Former president Richard Nixon also came close to being impeached, but he resigned during the process.
Impeachment is the process by which the US Congress (the House of Representatives) makes charges against a president or a government official. In itself, impeachment does not remove the president from office, and it is merely a statement of charges and is usually followed by a subsequent Senate trial, where the president is found either guilty or not guilty. The US constitution requires a two-thirds majority to convict an impeached president.
The impeached president remains in office until the trial is held, but his powers are suspended. It remains to be seen how Trump will conduct business and deal with political issues of importance to the country while he is in a state of limbo.
Once the Senate and the Congress reconvene, the Senate impeachment trial, very similar to a criminal trial, will begin, though we still have no clue when it will start, the duration of the deliberations, or how extensive it will be. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not specify when she will be sending the impeachment verdict to the Senate.
Bearing in mind that the Democrats are the majority in the House but a minority in the Senate, the pundits expect the president to be acquitted and to continue to serve. We must wonder whether this will be a fair trial or a copy-cat impeachment in which both sides deliver for their parties and not for justice. The Senate members who will preside over the trial will be asked to take an oath to set aside party loyalty, but whether they will do so or not remains to be seen.
The impeachment of Trump is not only a significant moment in history but also a grave example of the current political turmoil in the US. The impeachment exhibits a polarised and deeply divided Congress in which members have voted in line with their parties. Allegiance and gain, it seems, have overridden impartiality and justice.
On one article, two Democrats voted no on the proposed impeachment, and on the second article only three voted against the impeachment while all the Republicans voted against. However, the two Democrats who voted no represent swing districts that Trump won in the 2016 elections, so they may have been worried about their seats.
Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic presidential candidate, stood out as an anomaly in all this. She voted present, which means she neither voted yes or no to impeachment. She also said that “my vote today is a vote for much-needed reconciliation and the hope that together we can heal our country.”
It is a divided Congress, but Americans are also divided. In various polls, 47 per cent of Americans supported the impeachment and 47 per cent were opposed to it. Many who think Trump has committed an impeachable offence say that his fate should be decided by the voters in the 2020 elections rather than by a Senate trial.
Republicans and Democrats have always been at locked horns, but the present tense ambiance has risen beyond compare, with the Democrats after Trump in a witch-hunt fashion and the Republicans defending him with valour. After the impeachment vote, Trump said that “the do-nothing Democrats are declaring their deep hatred and disdain for the American voter.” It is true that Trump has been fighting a battle against the Democrats from day one, but some may say that his actions have called for this reaction.
In his own forthright and direct way Trump claimed that “it doesn’t really feel like we’re being impeached.” Simultaneously, he took the impeachment results with a grain of salt, saying that “I don’t know about you, but I’m having a good time,” and “I’m not worried.”
He also pointed to the Republican unity on both articles of the impeachment, given that all the Republican members of the House voted no. “Every single Republican voted for us… We didn’t lose one Republican vote,” the president said on stage at a rally in Michigan.
He also said that the Republicans have “never been so affronted but have never been so united”. Despite the kerfuffle and the looming results of the Senate trial, Trump could still be elected for a second term as he is guaranteed his party’s nomination.
The impeachment and later Senate trial tell us that despite what seems to be due process and fairness and impartiality, the final results remain partisan, as those involved have voted on party lines.
Gabbard may have summed it up succinctly when she said that “a house divided cannot stand. And today we are divided. Fragmentation and polarity are ripping our country apart. This breaks my heart and breaks the hearts of all patriotic Americans.”
The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly