By Trevor Busch
Things are far from peachy keen these days in the land of the Red, White and Blue, as senators grapple with the thorny issue of whether to impeach the illustrious President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Today, senators are poised to make an historic vote — whether or not to acquit the president on both counts — and most observers, rightly or wrongly, believe an acquittal is largely a foregone conclusion based on Republican seat totals in the Senate.
That Senate majority, coincidentally, is where all of the focused attention from media pundits, opponents and supporters, and the denizens of Trump Nation seem to have registered their scrutiny. The actual merits of the allegations appear to be largely lost on a populace possessed with partisan fury and a desire to lay low their political enemies once and for all at almost any cost. Unfortunately, the facts seem to matter less and less to the average American citizen, on both sides of the political spectrum. More disturbing, however, is witnessing a group of top elected representatives — U.S. senators — apparently toss aside any pretense of arriving at a fair, bipartisan conclusion to the proceedings so they can line up in support of their new monarch and overlord. Say what you will about the merits of the allegations, the impeachment trial has been a despicable spectacle to say the least.
And while Trump is still schmoozing it up at near-constant rally opportunities with his own pungent brand of reptilian charm — where lies serve as the new truth, and facts are open to wide-ranging manipulation — there has been limited signs his Republican sycophants in the Senate and House have been willing to break ranks to criticize the president’s actions over Ukraine. However, most still argue Trump’s behaviour does not warrant a conviction in an impeachment trial, and his subsequent removal from office.
That shouldn’t come as any great surprise to Americans. Throughout the 20th century and into the next as America’s power has grown, we have seen a series of presidents and administrations which appear to no longer cleave to any restrictions on the powers vested in the executive office. Few other presidents have exemplified that unfortunate truth better than Richard Nixon, whose abuse of the office — most famously through the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation — has now become almost legendary. Nixon was one of the first in a long line that began to view the office of the president as beyond the reach of such unimportant principles as rule of law, preservation of the Constitution, or accountability.
As part of the famous David Frost series of interviews with Nixon broadcast in 1977, the disgraced former president actually put this concept into words in a quote that shows just how far down the rabbit hole America has tumbled. When Frost asked about the legality of his actions in the context of national security, a straight-faced Nixon replied, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.”
But Trump is no king, even if he likes to act like one. And while he appears to admire authoritarian strongmen the world over — Kim Jong-un in North Korea and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines swim to mind — there are still checks and balances on the executive branch in the U.S. Constitution. But if those checks are only subject to the most partisan of proceedings in the U.S. Senate, how effective are they at actually controlling the actions of a president? Not very, Trump would probably argue. And if that is the case, why bother to subject my actions to any restrictions whatsoever in future? One wonders if an impeachment trial followed by an acquittal is really more of a political education in futility for Trump, and other new populist demagogues just waiting in the wings.
Trump is now rubbing shoulders with some rarefied company. Only three presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives in U.S. history: Andrew Johnson in 1868, Bill Clinton in 1998, and now the enigmatic Donald Trump in 2019. It should be noted, however, that no Senate trial has ever actually convicted a sitting president and ordered his removal from the office; Johnson and Clinton were acquitted.
Back in 1868, Johnson was being targeted by the House for “high crimes and misdemeanors” detailed in 11 articles of impeachment during a period of tension between the executive and legislative branches. Had Johnson been convicted, most today conclude the main source of the president’s political power — the freedom to disagree with Congress without consequences — would have been destroyed, as well as the Constitution’s system of checks and balances.
In 1998, Clinton was also being accused of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for lying under oath and obstruction of justice for actions surrounding the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, but his Senate trial was another partisan farce which did little to impact Clinton’s overall popularity.
Trump, on the other hand, is another kettle of slippery fish. While all but sure to result in an acquittal, Trump’s “high crimes” — namely attempting to influence public opinion in the upcoming 2020 presidential election by abusing his office to disparage the reputation of a political opponent, and then obstructing Congress’s investigation of said actions — would seem to be heinous enough in themselves to warrant a conviction in any independent judicial court. But the U.S. Senate is no court of law, and American political representatives in 2020 appear to place more faith in ideology and partisan rhetoric than in the actual principles of good governance.
Many Americans probably hope that, acquittal or not, Trump’s actions will remain a red flag in the mind of voters this fall when they cast their ballots in the 2020 presidential contest. Sadly, if the recent experience with the Trump Administration over the past four years should serve as any yardstick, the Teflon Don will probably come through the proceedings unscathed, at least among his hardcore supporters.
As for the all-important unaligned at the ballot box — still a critical, if shrinking, demographic in battleground America today — there are signs this vote won’t be showing up for Trump again in 2020, at least not in the numbers we saw in 2016. So the constant campaign rally sideshow needs to step up its game if they intend to vault their geriatric saviour into the White House for another four years.