The United States’ House of Representatives impeachment enquiry into President Donald Trump begins in public today, 13 November.
The three issues that were considered to be important enough to justify the impeachment process at the time of the U.S. Constitution being set up, and that are still at the heart of the impeachment process, are:
- involvement of a foreign power, or
- bribery, corruption, extortion, or
- abuse of power.
In fact, all three are relevant to the offences Trump is charged with.
The three issues listed above are the break-down of the phrase used in the U.S. Constitution as what you can be impeached for: “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” (The word “high” essentially means the crime or misdemeanour relates to the office of the person concerned, and not to his role as an ordinary citizen.)
Essentially, “treason” means that a president has fallen under the influence of a foreign state, or as is alleged in Trump’s case, he made a deal with a foreign power by which he gets something privately (any “emolument” or thing of worth).
At the time of the debates over 200 years ago, Hamilton referred to the danger of the “desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Madison said a future president may betray by giving “trust to foreign powers.” Morris, finally agreed to impeachment to prevent “the danger of seeing the first Magistrate in foreign pay.”
The word, “bribery” still refers, as it did at that time, to using one’s office for personal gain (an electoral advantage for Trump as past and future candidate), and could include extortion and bribery.
And “abuse of power” is using one’s office in order to advance one’s own interests, as opposed to the interests of the people of the country.
So, Trump is accused of holding up military aid already voted by Congress for the Ukraine in exchange for “a favour”. The military aid from the US to Ukraine was not just any old aid, but part of a treaty (the Budapest Memorandum) signed 25 years ago, after the fall of the USSR. The Treaty guaranteed, inter alia, that Ukraine, once split from Russia and thus then the third largest nuclear power, would receive military aid from the US and Russia, in exchange for dismantling its entire nuclear arsenal, which it did. The US military aid was put on hold by Trump’s administration in the middle of 2019. The “favour” Trump requested involves two requests: the new Ukraine President should announce investigations into Joe Biden’s son’s business in Ukraine, and into the now debunked thesis that it was not Russia but Ukraine that interfered in the 2014 US elections in favour of Trump’s re-election. This barter is what is referred to as a quid pro quo. Importantly, there are two foreign powers in the narrative that Trump might be beholden to.
How it will unfurl
Witnesses will be called in public for the first time today, before the House of Representatives.
The impeachment inquiry needs a simple majority in the House in order to pass what are called the articles of impeachment i.e. the sending of an outline of prosecution for impeachment to the Senate.
Then the Senate needs a 2/3 majority to remove the President. Much will depend upon how much the American people can and do follow (on TV, in the Press and on social media) and also upon how much people understand of what is going on in the impeachment hearings.
Clearly there is a case to impeach Trump.
But, the Republicans are out to place the US President “above the law”. And the less people understand of the proceedings, the more chance the Republicans have of conning people into thinking that Trump did not do what he is accused of doing (proof or not), or there is not enough proof that he did it (whether there is or not), or if they have to accept he did do it, their defence will change to be, he did it, but so what. It is not important and not impeachable, they will say. The President is above the law and can do what he likes, they will add. In fact, they will argue that the President will do it again. And, as if preparing this final rampart of defence, Trump has already gone and done it again. And he has done it in public. Donald Trump publicly appealed to the Chinese Premier to go get dirt on the Bidens. Trump and many Republicans are reduced to almost “baiting” the USA’s system of checks and balances.
It is clearly a dangerous moment for US democracy. However little democracy there still is, it is precious compared with none. A President above the law would be autocracy instated. And given the military power of the USA, this is dangerous for us all.
So, it is important to follow the proceedings, even though they are far away.