The major recent development in America’s domestic politics is the House of Representatives opening impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. The first and most important aspect of impeachment is that, even if Trump is eventually impeached, it does not mean that he will be removed from office. In fact, no U.S. President has been removed from office up to this point. In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned from the Presidency because of the Watergate scandal, but he did so before the House of Representatives voted on articles of impeachment.
U.S. impeachment investigations are carried out and then voted on by the House of Representatives. Once a president has been impeached by a majority House vote, which means that the House of Representatives has decided that the President has committed an impeachable offense, the investigation moves to the Senate. The Senate then votes on whether the impeached president should be removed from office, for which a two-thirds vote is necessary. Only two presidents have been impeached, most recently Bill Clinton in 1998, but no president has been convicted by the Senate. Impeachment is also not a criminal investigation, and pertains only to whether the legislative bodies decide that an official has committed offenses that warrant their removal from office.
Speculation about whether Trump would be impeached emerged almost immediately after the 2016 election because of accusations that Russia interfered in the election process either at the behest of the Trump campaign or with its cooperation. Those claims were investigated but no solid basis for further action emerged. Democratic Party leaders were also hesitant to initiate an impeachment process because of the perception that it might become a political liability, turning Trump into a martyr if the investigation failed to produce results.
The situation changed after the 2018 midterm elections when the House of Representatives passed into Democratic Party control. A House majority makes an impeachment result far more likely, but the House’s Democratic leadership, specifically House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has been hesitant to launch impeachment proceedings without a compelling reason. That compelling reason emerged from Ukraine.
For the last month a CIA whistle-blower’s report had been roiling the political waters in Washington. The whistle-blower had access to information about phone calls that President Trump made to the newly-elected president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. Those calls’ content became apparent two weeks ago when the whistle-blower’s report was largely made public. Reports in the past few days have indicated that an additional CIA whistleblower has emerged with more information related to the same topic.
According to the information made public, Trump threatened to withhold military aid destined for Ukraine if the Ukrainian president did not pursue a domestic investigation into Joe Biden’s son, who had business interests in Ukraine. Former Vice President Joe Biden is, of course, the leading Democratic Party contender for the 2020 Presidential nomination, so Trump expects information damaging to Biden’s campaign to emerge from such an investigation. Trump has also publicly urged the Chinese government to investigate Biden family business interests in their country.
In the U.S., Trump’s threat to the Ukrainian President is referred to as an example of quid pro quo, a Latin phrase meaning “this for that”. In other words, Trump wanted “this” (the investigation into Biden’s son) in return for “that” (aid for Ukraine). Trump and other administration officials have denied that what Trump referred to in the phone call was an example of quid pro quo.
The two incidents that the combination of Presidential election campaigns and collusion with foreign entities immediately brings to mind are Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign. During the 1968 election cycle, Richard Nixon’s election campaign tried to undermine peace negotiations between South and North Vietnam in order to delay any important breakthroughs until after that year’s Presidential polls. The accusation against Nixon’s campaign has been around since the event, and were enough for Lyndon B. Johnson, who decided not to run for President in 1968, to refer to the Nixon campaign’s behavior as “treason”. Some historians still remain skeptical as to whether Nixon was personally involved in the scheme, though.
A similar situation occurred a decade later during the 1980 Presidential election cycle. When the Iranian Revolution broke out, Jimmy Carter was the U.S. President. In late 1979, radical Iranian students broke into the U.S. Tehran embassy and took most of the staff hostage. The crisis dragged on for more than a year and was a main reason for Carter’s landslide defeat; the day that Ronald Reagan was sworn in as President in January 1981, only minutes after he recited the oath of office, the hostages were released. The timing of the hostages’ release naturally raised suspicions, and a Congressional investigation was carried out with no result. But several authors have asserted that the Reagan campaign did indeed collude with the Iranian revolutionaries in order to damage Carter’s reelection chances.
The primary difference between both of those examples and the current situation is that Nixon and Reagan had not been elected President when they apparently engaged in collusion with foreign actors. Trump, on the other hand, is President, so his behavior may be seen in a different light. Whether that “different light” has an actual legal dimension remains to be determined because the president has considerable freedom of action to conduct relations with foreign states.
The U.S. president and foreign policy
Especially since the 1960s, foreign policy formulation has been progressively stripped away from the State Department, Congress, and other U.S. governmental departments, and concentrated in the president and his close advisors. As late as the 1950s, U.S. foreign policy was largely formulated in the State Department’s hierarchy according to directives from the secretary of state, and then, once agreement was obtained from the president, implemented. Dean Acheson and John Foster Dulles were the last secretaries of state to enjoy such influence over foreign policy, and that is why their figures loom so much larger than any secretary of state since (Henry Kissinger was made secretary of state in recognition of the status that he had already achieved as Nixon’s national security advisor).
One interesting accusation repeated frequently about Trump’s interactions with the Ukrainian leadership is that Trump was “running a shadow foreign policy” in Ukraine. This phrase implies that he was doing something unofficial or illegal, and detrimental to normal U.S. foreign policy. I refer to this phrase as “interesting” because it is meaningless. In reality, the U.S. President is the primary decision-maker in reference to U.S. foreign policy; what the President decides to do in reference to foreign policy is the policy, so by definition it cannot be a shadow foreign policy.
One variation on the shadow foreign policy theme names former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani of being Trump’s agent for the scheme. The difficulty with that idea is the fact that past presidents have also used personal friends as special envoys to foreign powers. Probably the most famous was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose friends Harry Hopkins and Averell Harriman performed a variety of such tasks for him.
Likelihood of impeachment?
In sum, because much of the impeachment rhetoric currently thrown around in the media seems to lack substance, the entire process will hinge on whether Trump personally benefitted from the schemes suggested to foreign entities or engaged in behavior that compromised the security of the U.S., and whether Congress decides that his actions constituted an offense warranting impeachment and removal from office. =><= Exactly which crime he may have committed — if he committed one — is unclear. Treason? Collusion? Influence peddling? As the impeachment process plays out, we will also learn whether Congress decides that his behavior constituted a crime.
A cynical observer may suggest that what Trump did was simply par for the course, that U.S. presidential administrations have always engaged in the sort of behavior of which Trump stands accused. Honestly, that accusation is not far from the truth because every imperial power works to utilize the advantage of its power, and to prevent potential rivals from gaining strength. At least as far back as William McKinley, U.S. president from 1897 until his assassination in 1901, the U.S. has openly wielded power, manipulation, and force of arms in order to wrest concessions from foreign states. The apparent difference in this case is that Trump used the power of his office for personal political gain.
Subsequently, because of the intensely polarized political atmosphere in the U.S., the likelihood of Trump’s impeachment is high, but the prospect of his removal from office is low. This is true simply because the Democratic Party controls the House of Representatives, and the Republican Party controls the Senate. Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnel, the Senate Majority leader, has already indicated to the press that the Senate will examine impeachment articles if the House eventually forwards them to the Senate, but that the Senate will probably spend little time in rejecting them.
For his part, Trump has continued to project confidence in expectation that impeachment proceedings will help his popularity ratings. In fact, his support amongst Republican voters has solidified since impeachment proceedings were opened, according to polls carried out in the past week. On the other hand, support for impeachment proceedings against Trump amongst all voters has also increased. Thus, what impact the impeachment proceedings will have on the outcome of next year’s election is unclear. If the impeachment process runs quickly, the speed of the modern news cycle may render it a distant memory by the time voters go to the polls a year from now.
[ The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university ]
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency
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