By Seema Sirohi
The already turbulent presidency of Donald Trump is set to enter an even more bumpy stretch as the impeachment process gets underway in earnest. The public phase of the impeachment inquiry against Trump is set to begin this week with Democrats in the House of Representatives trying to establish that he abused his office for personal political gain.
By televising the hearings, the Democrats want to build as much public support as possible as they proceed. They are looking back at the Watergate hearings, which signaled the end of Richard Nixon’s presidency. A nation watched mesmerised as evidence of a break-in into the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate Hotel and the subsequent cover-up piled up against Nixon, prompting him to resign before he could be impeached in 1974.
But these are decidedly different and more partisan times. Political debates are conducted at a much lower level. None of the high-mindedness and bipartisanship of the 1970s is visible in the current process. Trump and key Republicans have already called the whole thing a “witch-hunt.” It is likely they will turn it into more of a circus than a civics lesson. They will use the hearings to rouse Trump’s base, stoke the fires and channel the anger against the Democrats.
The aim for both parties is the same – to use the process to muscle up for 2020 in what promises to be a sharper, more polarized and a more vicious political contest — if that’s even imaginable after the bruising 2016 race.
The main charge against Trump based on a whistle blower’s complaint is that he asked Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to interfere in the 2020 US presidential election. Trump allegedly dangled the already sanctioned $400 million in US military aid to Ukraine as an incentive to cooperate. He asked Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, former vice president and now a top Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter who was on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
The whistle blower’s complaint has since been corroborated by several State Department and White House officials who have already testified behind closed doors in front of the House Intelligence Committee after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry on September 24. Now, the hearings will be on live television. The facts of the case are pretty much established but facts are not enough in today’s politics. In fact, they are a distraction in fierce political battles such as this one.
What about the American people and where are they right now?
Polls in the first week of November showed that 48% of the Americans support impeaching Trump while 44.4% do not, which is a split right down the middle. Looking at party lines, 82% of the Democrats support impeachment while only 10.7% of the Republicans do. Independents are somewhere in the middle.
It’s a given that Trump’s base will make it impossible for the Republicans to support anything remotely bipartisan during the hearing because their own re-election would be in jeopardy. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who is close to Trump, has already dubbed the process “a joke.” Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee and the man in charge of conducting the hearings, has said the public hearings will “be an opportunity for the American people to evaluate the witnesses for themselves.”
One will have to wait and see if the American people watch carefully, judge independently and do not get swayed by the radically different interpretations they are likely to get from the conservative Fox News and the liberal MSNBC.
Republicans are banking on a defence strategy that is heavy on offence. They will try to discredit and dismiss the witnesses most of whom are career bureaucrats. They will take a leaf out of the confirmation hearings of Brett Kavanaugh, the Supreme Court justice Trump pushed through despite credible allegations of sexual misconduct against him.
Republicans will emphasise that none of the witnesses had a direct conversation with Trump about Ukraine and evidence of a quid pro quo is a result of conversations among themselves. To ensure this works, the White House has used executive privilege to block witnesses from discussing their conversations with Trump.
Some White House officials with direct knowledge of the conversation have declined to appear despite subpoenas from the House committee. In other words, this is also a contest between two supposedly co-equal branches of government. The key witness to appear on Wednesday is William Taylor, a career diplomat, who has already talked about a parallel foreign policy being run by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani is a key player in the drama and is supposed to have actively put pressure on Ukraine’s president to investigate Hunter Biden.
The Democrats have released the transcripts of closed-door hearings in which Taylor said he was told that no military assistance to Ukraine could go through unless Zelensky publicly announced an investigation into Hunter Biden’s dealings.
Another defence the Republicans are using – something that would ring true with many foreign governments that have dealt with this White House – is that the Trump administration is simply too disorganised to execute a quid pro quo scheme.
The wily Senator Graham has endorsed this talking point, saying Trump’s Ukraine policy was “incoherent” and therefore it could not have materialised in a quid pro quo. It’s unlikely that anyone would fall for this one but the larger idea is to muddy the waters.
In addition, the Republicans on the House intelligence committee are pushing for Hunter Biden to be called as a witness to explain how he got on the board of Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company, while his father was vice president even though he had no experience with Ukraine or natural gas.
A key witness the Democrats have summoned and who has refused to appear unless the courts direct him to is John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who compared the Ukraine shenanigans as a “drug deal.” Bolton was reportedly appalled by what was going on and tried to mitigate the wildness of the Trump White House.
As the US Congress and the White House get consumed with impeachment hearings, there would be little time and space left for other matters such as US foreign policy objectives and their implementation.