Last week, Democratic majority leader and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi announced the beginning of a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump over alleged abuse of power after it came to light that he may have used US aid to Ukraine to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into reopening an old investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, in an attempt to dig up dirt to use in the next US presidential elections in which Joe Biden is one of the leading Democratic contenders. What are the chances this impeachment inquiry will succeed, especially given the failure of the recent attempt to initiate one based on the Mueller investigations into Trump’s possible implication in Russian tampering in the US presidential elections in 2016? How would it impact on the 2020 elections if the process succeeds or fails?
The inquiry that Pelosi has launched is only the fourth attempt to impeach a US president in more than 150 years. The first was initiated against president Andrew Johnson in 1868 and failed to pass the Senate. The second, launched into president Richard Nixon in 1974 in connection with the Watergate scandal, was never completed because Nixon resigned before the House could vote on the articles of impeachment. President Bill Clinton was the subject of the third process initiated by Republicans against the backdrop of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, on the grounds of accusations that he lied under oath. The impeachment was overturned in the Senate.
Although the historical record of impeachment is not necessarily a gauge of the outcome of the current inquiry into Trump, it is a good indicator of the difficulties and complexities involved. Although the US constitution makes it fairly easy for the House of Representatives to initiate an impeachment inquiry, even before there is hard evidence of wrongdoing, it can take up to a year for the process to reach conclusion in the Senate, which has the final say on any impeachment resolution. In the event that articles of impeachment are approved by the House, the Senate becomes, in effect, a grand jury with the right to reject the charges levelled against the president without having to furnish justification. Practically speaking, therefore, Trump’s fate will ultimately be determined in the upper house where impeachment requires support by two thirds of that chamber’s 100 members. Such an outcome is difficult to picture today given the fierce acrimony between Democrats and Republicans over numerous political, economic and social issues. Even if some Republicans believe that Trump is guilty of abuse of power in the ways alleged by Pelosi and others, they would think twice before backing the Democrats in an impeachment vote for fear of the impact this would have on their party’s prospects in the next presidential elections. As the Republicans control a majority in the Senate (53 seats), chances are slim that the Democrats could win 32 Republicans and Independents to their side to obtain the necessary majority for impeachment.
Even before an impeachment bill reaches the Senate, the inquiry which is now in progress through the various House investigatory committees will take at least until the end of the year before a vote is taken and the process turned over to the Senate. Therefore, there is also a possibility that the Democrats, certain that they will not be able to obtain the required majority in the Senate, will abandon the process at some point and content themselves with the disarray they stirred around Trump in advance of the next elections.
President Trump believes that the battle is in his favour. He claims that the conversation he had with the Ukrainian president, a redacted transcript of which was made public, proves that he did not apply any pressure on Zelensky on the matter of Hunter/Joe Biden and that this is part of a Democratic bid to deceive US public opinion which, he says, believes he is a great president who made the US economy better and whose foreign policy succeeded in forcing Washington’s adversaries and commercial rivals to make concessions that benefited the US economy. Naturally, only reliable opinion polls, when and if they emerge, can confirm the president’s claim. But even opinion polls made now are not reliable indicators as to what lays ahead because of the fluctuations in public opinion that are likely to occur over the next few months.
In like manner, the impact of the impeachment process on the next presidential elections is impossible to predict since much is contingent on the results of the inquiries. Up to now, however, we can say that Trump is in a good position. Not many Republican congresspersons are prepared to join the Democrats in this process and Trump will continue to argue that the Democrats are on another “witch hunt”.
Still fresh in American voters’ memories is controversy over the “Hamilton Electors”, a group Electoral College members who voted with their conscience in the 2016 election instead of for the candidate they were pledged to vote for in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote in their respective states. The group was named after Alexander Hamilton, one of the US founding fathers who, in an essay published in 1788, argued in favour of an Electoral College consisting of representatives from each state in the Union as a means— with the powers of discernment needed — to prevent a presidential candidate elected by the people from becoming president if he were unsuitable for office. The Electoral College vote prevails over the popular vote in the US electoral system. The “Hamilton Electors” movement began immediately after the announcement of Trump’s electoral victory in November 2016. Initiated by two Democratic members of the Electoral College, Michael Baca of Colorado and Bret Chiafalo of Washington, its aim was to rally enough Electoral College members to vote against Trump on the grounds that, if he became president, he would threaten US security and vital interests, a principle that is supported by a number of constitutional articles. The attempts of the Hamilton Electors failed, as we know, but if we add it together with the Mueller investigation that the Democrats set into motion, Trump can argue that the impeachment inquiry that has been set into motion by the Ukrainian connection is more of the same: a campaign by Democrats who “are out to get him” as opposed to a defence of the rule of law and the US constitution.
Trump can also point to the record of how Nancy Pelosi herself had long been reluctant to start an impeachment process and argue that she ultimately caved in to the pressures of the leftwing in her party. While the Democratic left enjoys broad support among the US youth, it is not supported by the middle aged and older generations in the party and it is opposed by the major interest groups that control the keys to the US economy. Trump could, therefore, use this argument not only to rally Republicans behind him but also to drive a wedge between liberal and conservative Democrats in Congress.
What is certain at this point is that the Democrats are in a dilemma. They are uncertain they will be able to obtain the necessary majority in the Senate in order to impeach Trump but they cannot turn back on an impeachment process that might divide the party or alienate it from a large amount of its voters. The loss of credibility would do even more damage if they back down now. Their only hope is a repeat of the Nixon scenario: Trump would come to realise that the accusations against him are serious and that he could be convicted, and that his party (or the majority of it at least) would no longer side with him if the accusations hold. In that case, he would resign in exchange for a guarantee of an amnesty, ceding his office to the vice president who would serve as president for the remainder of Trump’s term and, perhaps, run as the Republican candidate in the next elections.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 October, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.