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Impeachment: Against The Wall And Nowhere To Go?
Molly Killeen, Features Writer
Image by Pete Linforth
Since early in the Trump presidency, and even before it had begun, opponents of America’s head of state have been asking, in increasingly incredulous tones, how someone who so brazenly flaunts his disregard for norms and procedure, can be considered fit to hold what is arguably the world’s most powerful office.

Now, after almost three years of increasing anger and outrage at the trampling by the incumbent of what, in any other circumstance and under any other president, would have presumably been considered ‘red lines’, Democratic leaders have finally taken the step to begin impeachment proceedings.

For a number of months now there have been growing calls for this course to be embarked upon, no longer just from progressive activist groups but from the halls of Congress. After the 2018 midterm elections, which saw the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, previously held by the Republicans and the only body which can initiate an impeachment inquiry, the prospect of this momentous step being taken was greatly heightened.

The wave of progressive candidates elected last November, greatly powered by the reaction to Trump’s 2016 election, meant that such calls for impeachment were no longer contained to what were considered the more ‘radical’ fringes of America’s left, but were being issued by the representatives of the American public, from stages in front of the Washington’s Capitol building.

Technically, however, Trump has yet to be formally impeached. Currently, the House is conducting an inquiry into a complaint made by a whistle-blower which alleges that Trump pressured the Ukrainian President to investigate the son of one of this potential 2020 rivals.

This is just the first step in what is a long and involved process, and the outcome is far from clear. Not only is there theoretically much to be revealed throughout the investigative process, as the House of Representatives seeks further information from the government and key figures associated with it, but the headway the Democrats may be able to make is heavily contingent on the support they can muster from both their own and the opposing party in both the House and the Senate.

The Whistle-blower’s Complaint

The whistle-blower first wrote to the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, on the 12th of August, with a nine-page letter detailing information which they had received from “more than half a dozen U.S. officials…In the course of [their] official duties.”

Their key concern, as outlined in the letter, is that this information demonstrated that “the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election,” and that these actions are not only an violation of law but “pose risks to U.S. national security and undermine the U.S. Government’s efforts to deter and counter foreign interference in the U.S. elections.”

The Call

The complaint centres on a phone-call between President Trump and the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, which occurred on the 25th of July. The whistle-blower writes, based on information obtained from “multiple White House officials with direct knowledge of the call”, that Trump used the majority of the call to pressure the Ukrainian leader to “initiate or continue an investigation into the activities of former Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter Biden”, as well as asking him to assist in looking into allegations that Russian interference in the 2016 election had originated in Ukraine.

Joe Biden, a current front-runner in the Democratic primary race, is a potential opponent of Trump’s in next year’s general election, and was Vice President to the incumbent’s predecessor, Barack Obama. His son, Hunter, began work for Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company, in 2014 and has become the focus of allegations of corruption by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. Both have suggested that Joe Biden pressed for the dismissal of a Ukrainian prosecutor looking into the company, despite there being no evidence to support this claim.

Giuliani is described by the whistle-blower as a “central figure” in these events, and US Attorney General William Barr is also cited as someone who “appears to be involved.” In May of this year, shortly after Zelensky’s election, Giuliani announced his plans to visit Ukraine in order to urge to government to investigate Hunter Biden’s role in the company. After facing criticism, the former New York City mayor cancelled the trip, telling Fox News that he was no longer going as he feared he was “walking into a group of people who are enemies of the president.”

The “Cover-Up”

The second part of the whistle-blower’s complaint focuses on events which followed the call, and which have led many to brand White House officials’ behaviour as akin to a “cover-up.”

Approximately twelve officials listened in to the call, one of whom, it was later revealed, was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the following days, the whistle-blower learned, senior White House figures “intervened to “lock down” all records of the phone call, especially the official word-for-word transcript of the call.”

“This set of actions,” the whistle-blower writes, “underscored to me that White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired in the call.”

Among the measures taken was the removal of the electronic transcript of the call from the computer system on which such records are normally stored and through which they are distributed to Cabinet-level officials, and the loading of it onto a separate system used to store classified and particularly sensitive information.

According to the officials who spoke to the whistle-blower, the instruction to do this came from White House lawyers. One official, the complaint says, “described this as an abuse of this electronic system because the call did not contain anything remotely sensitive from a national security perspective.”

The Concerns

The complaint also outlines a number of additional concerns surrounding events leading up to the phone call between Trump and Zelensky. These include the abrupt recall of the US’ ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, in April, as well as meetings between Giuliani and a senior aide to the Ukrainian President.

Multiple U.S. officials voiced their concerns to the whistle-blower, according to the complaint, over Giuliani’s contact with Ukranian figures, as this was seen to be a “circumvention of national security decision-making processes.” These officials told the whistle-blower that members of the State Department had had to perform damage control as a result and clarify the different messages that Ukrainian leadership was receiving through these different channels of communication.

The whistle-blower also writes that a number of officials revealed that Ukraine was under the impression during this period that a meeting between Trump and Zelensky was entirely contingent on the latter’s “willingness to “play ball”’ on certain issues.

The complaint also outlines concerns over the fact that in a June interview with ABC news, President Trump explicitly stated his willingness to accept damaging material on political rivals offered by a foreign government.

The Impeachment Process

Regardless of the content of the whistle-blower’s complaint, the outcome of the impeachment proceedings is far from certain and the process is heavy with the weight of today’s hyper-partisan American politics.

As stipulated in the constitution, impeachment begins in the House of Representatives with its speaker, currently Rep. Nancy Pelosi, launching a formal inquiry into the alleged offence. Any of the six House committees currently investigating the President’s conduct could be the one to vote on and then formally draft Articles of Impeachment which they would then present to the full House for a general vote. Historically, however, this function has been undertaken by the Judiciary committee.

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As the Democrats are in the majority in all of the House’s committees, it seems unlikely that this will be an obstacle for those in favour of furthering the proceedings. Once the Articles have been brought to the House floor, they will be voted on by all Representatives, with a simple majority (218 votes) needed to formally impeach the President. Given that Democrats currently hold the House with a 235-197 majority over Republicans (in addition to an independent and two vacant seats), this will not the most challenging step in the journey.

The impeachment process is formatted in a similar way to the US legal system, with the House acting in a similar way to a prosecutor, gathering and presenting evidence, and the Senate performing the function of jury or judge, reviewing it and deciding on whether to find the President culpable and therefore remove him from office.

If the House has votes to impeach Trump, then, the matter will precede to the Senate, where a ‘trial’ will be held, with a two-thirds majority needed to remove him from his role as President. This outcome, however, is far from guaranteed. The Republicans presently dominate in the Senate, outnumbering their Democratic (and Independent) counterparts 53-47, meaning that if all Democrats and Independents voted to convict the President, they would still need twenty Republicans to join them.

Whilst no Republican Senator has come out in blatant support of impeachment, Senators Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse and Susan Collins have all voiced concerns over Trump’s conduct both in relation to Ukraine and in his reaction to the announcement of his impeachment. Three out of one hundred, however, is far from a promising prospect for those hoping for the end result of Trump’s removal.

Impeachment: Against The Wall And Nowhere To Go?, 9th October 2019, 15:53 PM