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Phone Calls, Bribes and Witch Hunts: An Insight into Trump’s Impeachment and Acquittal7 min read

February 7, 2020 5 min read


Phone Calls, Bribes and Witch Hunts: An Insight into Trump’s Impeachment and Acquittal7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

With talks of impeachment first surfacing in 2017 by Congressmen Green and Sherman, the world held their breath as the Senate of the United States of America deliberated on whether President Donald Trump should be able to maintain his presidential status or be asked to step down from the position altogether with immediate effect.

As of February 6, Donald Trump has been acquitted.

Impeachment, under the American Constitution, provides a mechanism for removal of the President, Vice President and other “civil officers of the United States” found to have engaged in “treason, bribery, or other high crimes or misdemeanours.” This means that it is acceptable for a President to be impeached for a non-criminal offence. In fact, the Founding Fathers of the United States believed that behaviour that violates an officer’s duty to the country, even if such conduct is not necessarily a criminal offence could qualify that officer for impeachment. For example, James Madison believed that a President could be removed for the “wanton removal of meritorious officers.”

Before the enquiry into President Trump’s impeachment in December 2019, there were three other historic and almost infamous impeachment proceedings against three presidents: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton and—though many might debate whether he came under this bracket—Richard Nixon.

President Johnson was the first sitting president of the United States to ever face impeachment proceedings. Johnson fired his Secretary of War in 1867, which breached the Tenure of Office Act, according to which he couldn’t fire any important officials without the permission of the Senate. The House then voted to impeach him and said that he had disgraced the US Congress. Finally, the Senate tired his case and he was found not guilty by one vote.

President Clinton faced impeachment proceedings in 1998. From early 1994, he dealt with one scandal after the other, beginning with a financial investigation known as Whitewater, pertaining to a corrupt financial deal from his time at Arkansas. That same year, Paula Jones sued him, accusing Clinton of sexual harassment. In January 1998, during Jones’ case, Clinton denied under oath that he’d ever had an affair with Monica Lewinsky. But, news of the affair got out. Lewinsky recorded conversations of her talking about the affair and these tapes went public. On October 8, 1998, the House voted for impeachment proceedings to begin against Clinton. They approved four articles of impeachment: lying to a grand jury, committing perjury by denying his affair, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Clinton was tried and acquitted by the Senate on February 12, 1999.

Despite being complicit in one of the greatest political scandals in US presidential history, Richard Nixon was never impeached. He resigned before the House had a chance to impeach him (although they did begin impeachment proceedings against him). If he hadn’t quit, it was very likely that he would have been the first President ever to be impeached and removed from office given the extent of the crimes he committed to cover up his involvement in the Watergate break-ins.

Impeachment proceedings are initiated in the House of Representatives and for the articles of impeachment to pass, a simple majority is required. Then the matter is presented to the Senate, which is given the sole authority by the Constitution to try impeachment. A conviction on any one of the articles of impeachment requires the vote of at least a two-thirds majority of the Senators present. Should a conviction occur, the Senate retains authority to determine the appropriate punishment, which, under the Constitution is limited to either removal from office or removal and prohibition against holding any future offices of “Honour, Trust or Profit from the United States.”

The impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, the current President of the United States was initiated on September 14, 2019, by Nancy Pelosi who is the Speaker of the House. She did this after months of resisting impeachment proceedings remarking that the President’s Ukraine scandal marked a “breach of his constitutional responsibilities.”

In a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, President Trump repeatedly encouraged President Zelenskiy to work with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and US Attorney General William Barr to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, according to a memorandum about a July call between the two leaders released by the White House.

“There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great,” President Trump is said to have told President Zelenskiy. Trump did this a week after he froze military aid to Ukraine. When President Zelenskiy brought up the aid, Trump responded in a call record his own White House released: “I would like you to do us a favour though.” He then turned the conversation to Joe Biden and his son.

As Senator Chuck Schumer said, “This is about abuse of power by an overreaching executive. Something that the Founding Fathers feared.”

The House of Representatives, on December 18, 2019, approved two articles of impeachment—abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. President Trump then became the third president to ever face impeachment proceedings after the onus of the trial fell on the Senate.

One might wonder why the Founding Fathers placed this incredible tool only in the Senate. Alexander Hamilton, in justifying placement of the power to try impeachments in the Senate described impeachable offences as arising from “the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust.” Hamilton believed that such offences were “political, as they chiefly relate to injuries done immediately to the society itself.” They “agitate the passions of the whole community.” Given that impeachment is often more about political conduct than criminal conduct, Hamilton believed the Senate to be the only institution impartial enough to try impeachment. He saw the Senate as a body in touch with the people, but above petty political factions and rivalries.

But today’s Senate is not exactly the impartial and fair body Hamilton imagined it to be. It is bitterly divided along partisan lines, and as Hamilton feared about the treatment of the political nature of impeachment, “…it will connect itself with pre-existing factions, and will enlist their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side, or on the other.” He recognised the danger is that impeachment will be decided “more by the comparative strength of parties, that by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

Just a few days ago, on January 30, in a bitter vote divided along party lines, the Republicans voted to block considerations of new witnesses and documents. The vote failed 51-49, with Senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine being the only Republicans voting with the Democrats. The trial thus shifted in favour of President Trump, that is, towards a quick acquittal, that happened on February 5.

Almost as if they wished to prove Hamilton’s reservations about partisanship and partiality in America, despite several Republicans challenging President Trump’s assertions that he had done nothing wrong, they were unwilling to remove him in light of the elections which are less than ten months away. They believe him to be guilty of the crime he has been accused of (withholding almost 40 million dollars in military aid from Ukraine to force them to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden). But as Republican Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who played the critical vote in opposing the consideration of new evidence said, “If you are persuaded that he did it, why do you need more witnesses? The country is not going to accept being told they can’t elect the President they want to elect in the week election starts by a majority for a merely inappropriate telephone call or action.”

Hamilton knew there was no perfect answer for such a kind of impartial and non-politicised body, but placed his faith in the independence, authority and legitimacy of the Senate. But what he saw the Senate as—“unawed and uninfluenced”—is no more.

After yesterday’s inevitable acquittal, President Trump will become the first president to face voters after an impeachment trial. As the same man who claimed that the Constitution lets him do whatever he wants, it is unlikely that he will not bring up his acquittal and use it against the Democrats to take a shot on their credibility and legitimacy. Although it was a commendable attempt by the Democrats and the few odd Republicans, luck seems to be on President Trump’s side.

Depending on how he may play this out, it is appropriate to quote Machiavelli, “If an injury has been done to a man, it should be so severe that his vengeance need not be feared.”


Featured Image Courtesy: Arul Prabhaharan

Edited by: Nayantara Jacob