Can the president use his office to improperly deal with his political opponents?
On December 18, 2019, the United States House of Representatives impeached President Trump on two grounds: Abuse of power and obstruction of congress. This is one of the most important constitutional actions in recent American history.
The impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868 was over a clear cut issue dealing with the power of the president to force the resignation of a cabinet officer.
The impeachment of Clinton in 1998 was frivolous, a small monument to the Republican Party’s race to self-destruction. The impeachment of Trump focuses on the limits of presidential power.
Can the president use his office to improperly deal with his political opponents? Can the president deny Congress access to information that is legitimately required for the conduct of the work of Congress?
These are central issues in a democracy. Executives have a thirst for secrecy to prevent others from finding out what they are doing.
As the Washington Post says, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” In an autocratic society, the president abuses power whenever it serves his purposes and keeps everything secret.
Trump believes that he should have such absolute powers and resents the limitations that the constitution and the courts place on him. He wants to act secretly and avoid accountability.
Abuse of power
The first issue is well understood but the underlying events are bizarre.
From 2015 onwards, the American intelligence community believed that the Russian government was interfering in the 2016 presidential election in support of Trump and against Clinton by manipulation of social media.
Information continued to build up to support this claim about Russian behaviour; much was detailed in Mueller’s investigations. Indeed, the special prosecutor indicted a number of Russian officials who had been involved in this attempt at influencing the election.
All investigative reports on the events of the 2016 election (both done by Congress and the Executive) ascribe attempts to influence the election of the Russian government.
Only Trump has stubbornly denied that there was Russian interference in his favour. He believes that such interference brings into question the legitimacy of his presidency. He is right.
The interference of the Russians very likely won the election for Trump. Trump lost the popular vote. Clinton received 65.85 million votes, while Trump obtained 62.08 million votes -- a difference of 2.87 million.
Trump has denied the validity of this outcome, claiming that there were a large number of improper votes in favour of Clinton. No evidence has ever been presented to support this claim.
It is typical Trump: If there is a claim that is against you, invent a counter claim; repeat it over and over and a lot of people will believe you, even if there is no evidence.
Trump won the election legitimately as the American voting system for president operates in a special way: Each state receives a number of “electoral votes” equal to the number of senators (always two) plus the number of members of the House of Representative in the state (depends on population).
The electoral votes from the state go completely to the candidate that receives the most votes within the state, ie the winner takes all. (Only Nebraska and Maine do not follow the winner take all rule.)
Whoever wins the most electoral votes becomes president; the popular vote may give a different outcome as it did for Gore vs Bush in 2000 where Gore won slightly more votes than Bush, but lost the election in the Electoral College.
Putin and his security organizations have put forth a different reality: Putin claims it was the Ukraine government that interfered to help Clinton.
Trump has accepted this story as true and has been busy trying to get more support for its validity.
Trump does not really believe this tale, but rather he wants to try to put out a counter story.
So far no evidence has been forthcoming to support this fabrication.
The famous telephone call from Trump to Zelensky (the president of Ukraine), during which Trump asked him to investigate this bizarre theory, was Trump trying to promote this fairy tale.
Trump withheld military supplies, badly needed in Ukraine’s war with Russia, as a means of pressuring Zelensky to carry out the investigations Trump demanded. Altogether a shameful episode where Trump completely swallowed Putin’s fabrication.
The evidence is overwhelming that Trump imperiled the security of the United States and assisted America’s mortal enemy Russia to cause harm to a key ally.
His motive was to help his political campaign by attacking the reputation of the likely Democratic candidate, Joe Biden.
Nixon pulled the same trick in 1968, probably delaying the end of the Vietnam War and causing hundreds of thousands of additional deaths.
Reagan pulled a similar trick in 1980, causing the American hostages held by the Iranians to remain longer in prison.
The second point of impeachment, the refusal of Trump to provide documents and to allow officers to testify is a question that is really one for the courts to resolve.
But the executive should not have the power to hide everything from the legislator.
Of course, most of us believe that Trump’s blocking of witnesses and documentation is a clear signal of his guilt. The history of the courts on these issues suggests that the executive must give information to Congress.
What is next?
The articles of impeachment are now to be sent to the Senate, where the senators will sit as a jury to determine Trump’s fate.
Almost everyone believes that the Senate will not find the necessary 67 votes to throw Trump out (two thirds of the 100 senators.)
The impeachment will fail. The Republicans are voting to support Trump regardless of his guilt.
The Republican senators’ announcement that they will gladly violate their oath to defend the Constitution in order to protect the president puts their morality into question. It is a shocking exposure of the raw immorality of American political life.
Unfortunately, the quality of political life in the United States has reached a remarkably low level. Trump’s behaviour in his dealing with Ukraine was certainly wrong, reflecting his egotistical, self-serving character, not even aware of the implications of his statements.
The Democratic Party is expanding the issue, as they have such distaste for all things associated with Trump.
The Republicans, having shed all principles of political integrity, insist on seeing everything through the magical spectacles that refocus all Trump statements and actions as approved by the deity.
This fawning and kowtowing before a man with terrible character describes the Republican Party as it is today.
Most American political leaders have escaped to a land where their knowledge is perfect and their behaviour blessed. It is impossible for these wizards not to know everything. Indeed for the American political leader today, what you say is true by definition, as you said it.
Trump’s reaction to the impeachment is telling. He is essentially crying like a spoiled child. He blames others. Makes wild accusations and comparisons. He exposes his cowardly character, his lack of self control, and the total lack of modesty or consideration for others.
Obstruction of Congress
He is a bad little boy having a temper tantrum.
Republican congressmen and senators seem to find this an attractive way to behave and endorse the president’s nonsense, taking it as their own.
Where does the US go from here? Trump will survive the impeachment attempt and will use this experience as a club to beat the Democrats.
We will hear everyone screaming at each other. The campaign for presidency in 2020 will be bitter. Truth will be buried under a mountain of lies and exaggeration.
Trump’s basic tactic as chief bully of the US will be to lie, make stuff up, and cover the Democrats with his noisy verbal violence. The Democratic candidate may start off politely, but will soon be bogged down trying to deal with Trump’s lies.
The US faces deeply serious problems. We cannot expect the politicians to have any intelligent discussion of alternatives or provide meaningful choices to voters.
Instead, the election will be a replay of the battle over the impeachment.
If we are foolish enough to leave our television sets on, we will hear a flow of self-confident arrogance, disconnected from moral standards and driven by greed for power and money.
We will hear a great democracy marching towards its collapse, no longer the promise of freedom and enlightenment.
The charges in the impeachment articles are compelling. Trump has undermined the constitution by his behaviour.
The reactions of the Republican senators expose the failure of American democracy, and the replacement of fighting for the liberty of the people, by Republican senators too busy protecting their jobs, their pension plans, and their medical insurance.
In 1990, God struck down the Soviet Union. In 2020, He is striking down the US.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.