If you think the election here has been a disorientating exercise in post-truthiness, try following the latest twists in Washington. In the coming days Donald Trump will become the third American president to be impeached. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker, is rushing the vote on articles of impeachment through the House of Representatives, so that the Senate trial of Trump can start before the 2020 election primary season begins.
Pelosi knows that impeachment is probably a losing cause: the Republican–controlled Senate will almost certainly acquit the President. What, then, is the point? The Democrats will say impeachment is a moral necessity, since the President is evidently unworthy of high office. Trump and his allies, for their part, will insist that impeachment has always been the Democrats’ objective, because they know they can’t beat him at the ballot. Each side endlessly obfuscates by accusing the other of obfuscation.
Trump is accused of abusing presidential powers and obstructing the congressional investigation into his conduct. He allegedly coerced Ukraine by withholding military aid until the new government in Kiev launched an investigation into former vice-president Joe Biden, the man who leads the polls to be the Democratic nominee in 2020. That, according to congressman Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, amounts to ‘soliciting’ foreign interference in the 2020 election. ‘The facts are not seriously contested,’ he says. The Republicans are about to prove him wrong.
Trump, it is claimed, pressured the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky in the now notorious telephone call between the two leaders on 25 July this year. ‘Do us a favour, though,’ said Trump, and then talked about Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who was paid large sums of money by a Ukrainian energy company for no good reason. Meanwhile, Trump’s personal attorney, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, conducted a somewhat quixotic investigation into Ukrainian corruption that involved fishing for dirt on the Bidens.
According to the Democrats, through Giuliani’s activities and the President’s hints, the administration made it clear that America’s provision of about $400 million in military aid was contingent on Zelensky launching an investigation into Trump’s would-be 2020 opponent. There are a number of flaws in this argument. For starters, the aid was not withheld, merely paused, and Zelensky never launched an investigation into the Bidens. Zelensky insists he never felt pressured. He would say that, say the Democrats, but then they would say that. Trump can always argue that he was simply requesting that Ukraine clear up its evident corruption, including suspicious relationships between the Obama administration and Ukrainian power brokers, before he handed over masses of American aid. So far, no hard evidence proves otherwise.
Facts don’t care about your feelings, they say — to which the only sane answer today is: yeah, right, whatever. The point about Ukrainegate is that it is a matter of interpretation. If you don’t like Trump, you see a pattern of sinister behaviour that amounts to a campaign to coerce Ukraine. If you like him, you’ll think the real conspiracy is against him. The truth is slippery. Certainly, if this were a criminal case, the prosecution would struggle to prove Trump guilty.
Ah, say the anti-Trumpers, but impeachment is not a legal process. America’s Founding Fathers intended it to be a political mechanism to remove bad men from high office. That brings us to a dodgy valve at the heart of the American constitution. A political system is always going to be politicised, and impeachment inevitably becomes a partisan device for a party to take down an opponent.
That’s what is happening in the case of Trump. The House of Representatives will find him guilty because it has a Democratic majority. The Senate will acquit him because it has a Republican majority (a two-thirds majority is required to remove him). Trumpists will celebrate the enduring resilience of the constitution. The Democrats will moan that the system is broken.
Which brings us back to the question: why bother? The Democrats must hope that the American electorate will be sufficiently disgusted by Trump’s behaviour that they boot him out of the White House in November. Justice will be restored, and America set back on a path towards righteousness, progress and transgendered bathrooms.
But Trump’s opponents have spent the past three years hyping up various congressional trials and witness testimonies as the moment when, in a Hollywood-style denouement, Trump will be exposed as a villain and the horror of 2016 undone. It’s a fantasy. As we saw in the exhaustive inquiry into Trump’s alleged ‘collusion’ with Russia, these deus ex machina moments always fall flat.
Yes, the Senate trial of a sitting president is indisputably dramatic — and Trump is box-office material — but the Democrats are taking a huge gamble in assuming history must be on their side. Some polls do suggest that voters are disturbed by Trump’s alleged ‘quid pro quo’ antics. But most Americans don’t care about Ukraine and find the allegations arcane. Voters tend to worry about issues such as jobs and immigration, and Trump can claim successes on those fronts. Unemployment remains at record lows and, while he has failed to build the wall, reports this week suggest that his latest ‘remain in Mexico’ campaign has caused a 75 per cent reduction in illegal immigration on the southern border. Trump’s approval ratings have ticked up slightly, and a survey this week found that since impeachment proceedings began, his popularity has surged in crucial swing states.
Impeachment intensifies the polarisation in politics that everyone worries about. That suits Trump fine. On Monday, another divisive story broke. The Department of Justice’s Inspector General released a 476-page report on the FBI’s inquiry into the Trump campaign back in 2016 — the investigation into Russian interference which Team Trump characterises as a deep-state hit job against their man. Most news agencies reported that the IG had found no evidence of political bias, thus vindicating the FBI. But Trump found the IG findings ‘incredible, far worse than I ever would have thought possible’. His fans agree. Who cares what’s true? In Trumpworld, you see anything you want, and feelings don’t care about your facts.