(Image Source: Reuters, via Voice of America https://www.voanews.com/usa/impeachment-inquiry/full-house-vote-trump-impeachment-inquiry)
As Democrats move closer to impeachment, we explore how lessons from the 2016 campaign being heeded and why historical impeachments are not necessarily the best examples for comparison.
Why now? Why this moment? Why of all the indiscretions mooted as “high crimes and misdemeanours”, is this the hill the Democrats choose to die on? The reasons, you may be unsurprised to hear, are nuanced.
1. Trump painting opponents as “swampy”: The controversy surrounding former Vice President Joe Biden, of corruption and malpractice, is beginning to look similarly swampy to the allegations that plagued previous Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton. Democrats have decided that they can’t sit quietly on the side-lines, as corruption controversy surrounds a 2020 front-runner. This was a crucial factor in how Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton in 2016. The now-president rallied his forces, by leading chants of “lock of her up”, against his exonerated opponent. Clinton was the second most unpopular presidential candidate in history; bested only by Donald Trump, who went on to lose the popular vote.
2. Inviting a foreign power into the elections: If Democrats were outraged by Trump’s invitation to Russia to involve themselves in the 2016 election, then they will be smarting at an alleged Ukrainian “quid pro quo”, followed by a subsequent off-the-cuff request to China – who are currently in a trade war with the US at the president’s behest – to also investigate the Bidens.
3. Timing: Democrats don’t want to leave it too close to the election. In all likelihood, Trump will not be removed from office. But Democrats want to make their case and point to the electorate, and in good time before the general election. Disaster could be ahead for the Democrats if questions on who, why, where and when, linger too long into the campaign.
4. Principle: Although (extremely) unlikely to result in the conviction of the president, Democrats are cognisant to the fact that the standards they walk by are the standards they accept. They do not want to set a precedent on permitted behaviour based on the actions of this president.
Lessons from impeachments gone by
Don’t draw too many comparisons between the Nixon impeachment, nor the Clinton impeachment. Nixon’s impeachment, which led to him resigning before being convicted in the Senate, was held in less partisan times. Hard now, to see a Republican senator vote to convict a Republican President of the United States, whose support amongst the party is not only high, but built on a base of zealots. “The Base” is dogmatic and unshakeable in the face of any Trump scandal.
Many political commentators and advisors have argued against impeachment, on the basis it has realistically no chance of removing Trump from office, and during the last process of impeachment, public support rallied around Bill Clinton. However, this is a red herring for several reasons. The Clinton impeachment was viewed publicly as largely politically motivated. Ken Starr, the independent counsel of the Whitewater investigation into the Clintons’ real estate dealings, ultimately found insufficient evidence to bring charges against the Clintons. What the impeachment proceedings eventually were brought upon, was whether President Clinton lied under oath: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”. The protracted investigation resulted in the extremely unusual feat of the out-of-power party (the Republicans) losing seats in the mid-terms.
Trump’s alleged misdemeanours are different. Unlike the unpopularity of the Clinton hearing, the polls show the American public are in favour (52%) of impeachment…and removal. This is unlikely to sway Republican lawmakers, yet their public and on-the-record defence of the president’s actions could ultimately hurt them.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.