- An acquittal setting a lot of unfortunate precedents
The acquittal of President Donald Trump by the US Senate in his impeachment trial has a number of implications for the USA, not the least of them that no President should ever lose a majority in the Senate. It also means that there is now no sanction against what Trump’s own quondam National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is said to have described as a ‘drug deal.’ Trump will try to use this acquittal to rally his base in his race this year for re-election, as proof that the charges laid against him were merely another action in the constant Democrat effort to upset the result of the 2016 presidential election.
It was also very interesting to hear the law professors to appear before the House Intelligence Committee, who emphasized, among other things, that impeachment was supposed to act as a check on the President, but not a partisan exercise. It has never come down to impeachment, but in Pakistan it would be a partisan exercise. Impeachment is the method by which a President is to be removed in Pakistan, but it has only been contemplated twice, once against President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993, after the National Assembly which he dissolved had been restored, and then against Pervez Musharraf in 2013, when the party he had supported, the PML(Q), was trounced in the elections that year. In neither case did the move reach the floor of Parliament, and while Ishaq completed his term, Musharraf resigned.
The provisions for an impeachment of a US President are different for an Indian or a Pakistani President, for they are heads of state, not heads of government. As they are bound by the advice of the Prime Minister in all their actions, it is to be assumed that they would only be impeached if they did something in their private capacities, like murder, assault or theft, not violate the advice tendered to them. The PM who gave bad advice could be removed from office by the National Assembly, without assigning any reason, though it must name a successor in the motion of no-confidence. The US President, however, is free in all his actions. Therefore, when Donald Trump was accused of having pressured Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden, by the carrot of offering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a White House meeting and the stick of holding back of $321 million in military aid, he was accused of abusing his power, by asking a foreign power to intervene in a presidential election. He was also accused of obstructing Congress in its investigation.
More worrying, especially for proponents of the presidential system, is that this might mark the first step towards the USA moving away from democracy. There is already some talk of Ivanka Trump taking on her father’s legacy. There has already been the son of one President succeeding his father, and the wife of another running for the office. It took a long time for the Roman Republic to become an Empire. But like the USA, it was a democracy which acquired an empire first
Trump was going to be acquitted, not so much because he was innocent, as because the Democrats only had 49 Senators, and thus would need 17 Republican Senators to vote for his removal. As it was, of the 51 Republican Senators, only Mitt Romney voted for removal. In private, it is reported, Senators expressed disturbance, but in public none except Romney was willing to break ranks.
Democrats took the high horse, but the real motive was to unseat Trump. With him unseated, and disqualified from holding office again, the Republican Party would have had a hard time finding a substitute to contest the Presidency in this year’s election. The real fight would have been that for the Democratic nomination. As it is, the Democrats have hurt the President badly, for though acquitted, he has been impeached. The acquittal may rally the base of his voters, but the election is to be decided by the undecided and independent voters, who might well feel that the Senate had to acquit, and it was their duty to vote against him.
Presidents usually win a second term, especially one under whom the economy is doing well. While the US economy has been performing well under Tump, the trade war with China has been followed by the coronavirus epidemic, which might lead to an economic weakening that might lead to his defeat. A Trump win cannot be guaranteed, however, since 1976, three of eight sitting Presidents to contest have been defeated. Before that, there was only one defeat of a sitting President, in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. It could be said that a sitting President was due to lose, but Trump supporters could say that unenviable fate could overtake whoever was elected in 2024, not their man.
Ironically, the man Trump was accused of targeting, Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden, may not be the candidate Trump ultimately faces. Though the Iowa caucuses do not determine the nomination, they do provide an indication about which direction a party’s voters are inclined. Perhaps more important, performance in Iowa affects how well candidates will be at raising funds for the rest of their campaign. The second primary has taken place in New Hampshire, another key state for any candidate. Biden came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, so Democrats may have to forgo the vindication inherent in Biden beating Trump. However, there are no allegations of Trump trying to get any dirt on, or in any way, prosecute, Mayor Peter Buttgieg, or Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, who led Biden in Iowa and New Hampshire.
There have only been three impeachment trials, all ending in acquittal. But counting the Nixon case, when he resigned after the House voted his impeachment, and it became clear that Senate would vote to remove him, the frequency has been increasing. Between 1783 and 1973, the House only voted articles of impeachment once, against Andrew Johnson, who had become President after Abe Lincoln was assassinated, after being a Democrat elected on a ‘unity’ ticket. The Republican House majority voted Articles of impeachment, but lacked the two-thirds majority in the Senate. The impeachment of President Clinton in 1999 followed the same pattern, only in reverse: a Republican majority in the House voted to impeach a Democrat President, but a Democrat majority in the Senate voted to acquit him.
The Republicans had got Clinton dead to rights. He had not just behaved improperly with an intern, but had tried to shut her up with a government job. But he got off. So this time, when the Democrats had caught Trump with his hand in the proverbial till, the House voted the impeachment, but the Senate let him off.
The result of this partisan feeling is that impeachment, once a dread, rare sanction, is for Presidents becoming one of the ricks of the job, unless he belongs to the same party as both of the Houses. It is no longer enough to win; one must be sure that one controls both the House that votes on impeachment, and the one that tries it.
More worrying, especially for proponents of the presidential system, is that this might mark the first step towards the USA moving away from democracy. There is already some talk of Ivanka Trump taking on her father’s legacy. There has already been the son of one President succeeding his father, and the wife of another running for the office. It took a long time for the Roman Republic to become an Empire. But like the USA, it was a democracy which acquired an empire first.
There is one important difference in the route being travelled. The Roman Republic made a military commander its Emperor. Its highest elected officials, the two consuls, became nonentities. The USA seems destined to make its highest elected official the head of its empire. That the empire is presently informal is not unprecedented, but it does mean that there are more developments to come.