The President of the United States is a sort of elected monarch, which is why the office itself is imbued with a certain dignity, even when it is occupied by Donald Trump.
Of course, much of the respect given to the president comes from the fact that he can, in effect, destroy all life on Earth at any moment he chooses: his nuclear button really is ‘much bigger & more powerful’ than Kim Jong-un’s, and as Trump says, it really does work. But part of it also comes from the fact that the president is also the only elected official who represents the United States as a whole. In a way, he is the personification of the country, a living Uncle Sam.
When we Americans look in the mirror, whether to our satisfaction or to our horror, we inevitably see a bit of Donald Trump. Thus the prospective impeachment of Donald Trump is to some extent an impeachment of all Americans. Boorish? Check. Self-centred? Check. Petty, vindictive and prone to cover up our faults? Check, check and check. Dignity is much admired in the United States, but it is not really in the American DNA. It’s something we (used to) associate with Britain.
And so, confronted with the possibility that the House of Representatives might impeach President Trump, Americans aren’t so much dazed by the blatant partisanship on display in Congress as they are confusedly asking ‘what took so long’? The Democrats have been in control of the House since January. Considering everything that Trump has said, done and tweeted over the last three years, and everything that has been said, done and tweeted about him, it’s a miracle that he’s still in office.
With a majority of 18 seats in the House, the Democrats certainly have the votes to impeach the President. And they can impeach him for all of his typically American faults, without even having to dip into the ill-defined Constitutional category of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’. After all, the district judge John Pickering was impeached, convicted and removed from office in 1803 for drunkenness. And in 1869, President Andrew Johnson was impeached for, among other things, using ‘rude words’. He escaped conviction by just one vote.
Impeachment is easy. I impeach myself every day. Conviction is the hard part. In the United States, it requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate.
The House impeaches; the Senate judges. It’s just like in Merrie Olde England, where the Commons impeached and the Peers judged. We commoners get uppity about our kings all the time, but it’s a tough sell to convince two-thirds of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal to remove one of their own. In Britain, the last time the House of Commons successfully impeached a chief executive for harbouring ‘a wicked design to erect and uphold in himself an unlimited and tyrannical power to rule according to his Will’ was 1649. Represented by an ineffective defence team, Charles I lost his head. Boris beware.
In the United States, no president has ever been convicted in an impeachment proceeding, even if he was guilty. In 1998, Bill Clinton almost certainly committed at least two high crimes (perjury and obstruction of justice), and God knows how many misdemeanors, but even he was acquitted. And that was with Republicans in control of the Senate. The idea that Donald Trump would be convicted on vague charges of ‘abuse of power’ by two-thirds of a Senate where his party controls an absolute majority is preposterous. Even Donald Trump isn’t that unpopular.
And then there’s the election. In case you haven’t heard, 2020 is an election year in the United States. Conviction in an impeachment proceeding removes the incumbent from office, but it doesn’t automatically disqualify him from running again. That takes an additional vote. But if Senate Republicans not only convict President Trump, but also disqualify him from holding office in the future, who would be the Republican candidate in the 2020 elections? Currently, no one else is (seriously) running. The national Republican party isn’t even holding candidate debates, and some state parties are cancelling primaries and caucuses. It seems very unlikely that the Republicans would let the Democrats walk into the White House unopposed.
That’s why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also known as ‘America’s John Bercow’, has decided to fast-track impeachment proceedings. Unlike Britain’s Bercow, Pelosi doesn’t even have to pretend to be non-partisan. To have any hope of making charges stick against Trump, she has to give Republican senators the opportunity to Julius Caesar him before the 2020 election season starts in earnest.
It would help if a few of them wanted to run for president in Trump’s place. But 2016 runner-up Sen. Ted Cruz says that the House is ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘consumed with hatred’, while third-place finisher Sen. Marco Rubio concurs that House debates have ‘lost all meaning’. The House of Representatives, that is, not the House of Commons.
If only the House of Representatives worked like the House of Commons. Pelosi and her posse (check out my piece in July 27 Spectator Australia to learn about the ‘Four Ponies of the Apocalypse’) must be looking with envy to Britain, where a newly self-constituted Constitutional Court has decided that the House doesn’t have to impeach Boris Johnson, or even express ‘no confidence’ in him, in order to castrate him. But the United States Supreme Court, which really is a constitutional court (or has been since having its own Gina Miller moment, way back in 1803), has no authority to chastise a president, no matter what he does. That’s the advantage of having a written constitution.
That leaves Pelosi and the Democrats no choice but to fall back on politics. Pelosi can scream ‘off with his head!’ all she wants, but it won’t count for deuces in the Senate. If the Speaker seriously wants to add ‘regicide’ to her résumé, she’ll need some better cards. Much like Boris Johnson across the water, Trump’s job is safe at least as long as no one else wants it.
Salvatore Babones is the author of ‘The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts