Trump’s Trial: Extreme Polarisation Has Led to Lack of Consensus

Trump’s Impeachment: Extreme polarisation today has ensured that there’s no consensus on what comprises a ‘crime’.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
Image of President Trump used for representational purposes.
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The suspense is minimal because the outcome is known, but it doesn’t diminish the significance of President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, set to begin in earnest next week in the US Senate.

Much pomp and circumstance surrounds the process – somber-faced Democrats walked from the House carrying the “articles of impeachment” or the charge sheet to the Senate, and the Sergeant-at-arms ordered silence in the chamber “upon the pain of imprisonment”.

An impeachment is a punctuation mark in US history, no doubt, for only two former presidents – Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton – were impeached and tried, but acquitted.

Barring major surprises, Trump too is expected to escape conviction despite new revelations in the Ukraine scandal, because the Senate has a Republican majority of 53 members with 45 Democrats. The two independents are expected to vote with the Democrats.

Snapshot
  • An impeachment is a punctuation mark in US history; only two former presidents – Andrew Jackson and Bill Clinton – were impeached and tried, but acquitted.
  • Even though Trump is likely to be acquitted, there’s no doubt his legacy is tarnished.
  • The trial will set the tone for the 2020 presidential election campaign. The Republicans will rally behind Trump, and the Democrats will paint him as a president gone rogue.
  • There are several points of contention, which could make the proceedings unpredictable. Topping the list is the Democrats’ demand to call witnesses to further establish that Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanours”.
  • Public support for calling witnesses has gone up since the House inquiry began, which could influence a few Republican senators to vote with the Democrats.

Trump’s Trial Will Set the Tone for 2020 US Presidential Elections

Even though Trump is likely to be acquitted, there’s no doubt his legacy is tarnished. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, he is “impeached forever” in the minds of people and on the pages of history books. Another unforgettable tag has been added to the long list of Trump’s unusual qualities.

He and his support base consider it a “witch hunt”, but there is enough evidence that he used presidential power to browbeat a small country by withholding more than USD 300 million in security aid.

The Republicans say it is not an impeachable offence but very few experts agree, and those who do are being corralled to defend Trump, including Ken Starr, the lawyer who investigated Clinton for his dalliance with a White House intern, which ultimately led to his impeachment.

The trial will set the tone for the 2020 presidential election campaign. The Republicans will rally behind Trump, and the Democrats will paint him as a president gone rogue.

Two Democratic candidates – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – are both senators and now jurors in the presidential trial. They will, no doubt, collect plenty of ammunition for their campaigns as they attend the historic trial.

Republicans Will Be Anything But Impartial

All one hundred senators took the oath of impartiality on Thursday and promised to act according to the Constitution. But here’s the thing – the Republicans will be anything but impartial. They have remained unmoved by evidence, unfettered by procedures, and unimpressed by facts. And they hold the cards by virtue of their majority.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has already restricted access for the press to the second floor of the Capitol building – one of the few places where reporters can easily access members of the US Congress.

There are several other points of contention, which could make the proceedings unpredictable.

Topping the list is the Democrats’ demand to call witnesses to further establish that Trump committed “high crimes and misdemeanours”.

The two charges are: abuse of power for pressuring Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter – and obstruction of Congress by blocking testimony and refusing to provide documents for the impeachment inquiry.

The Democrats want to hear from John Bolton, Trump’s former national security advisor, who reportedly compared the whole Ukraine scandal to a “drug deal”. Bolton has said he is willing to testify if the Senate subpoenas him.

Trial Could Extend But Result May Still Be Acquittal

Latest revelations by Lev Parnas – a political operative and a former associate of Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani – that the president knew about the plan to dig up dirt on Biden in Ukraine, have only added to the list of more than a dozen former aides and senior officials who have already testified in front of the House Judiciary Committee that Trump knew about the scheme.

Parnas said a visit by Vice President Mike Pence to attend the inauguration of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, was dangled as a carrot to persuade Kyiv to cooperate. Since Zelensky decided not to, the visit was cancelled.

Public support for calling witnesses has gone up (54 percent support the idea) since the House inquiry began, which could influence a few Republican senators to vote with the Democrats.

All it means is that the trial would prolong but the result would likely still be acquittal.

On the question of whether Trump should be removed from office, the people are divided – 48 percent believe he should continue, while 46 percent say he should be removed, according to the latest Quinnipiac Poll. And herein lies the rub. Unlike in the time of Richard Nixon, when public opinion shifted drastically against him and prompted him to resign before he could be impeached for the Watergate scandal, the polarisation today is so extreme that there is no consensus on what constitutes a ‘crime’ or a ‘misdemeanour’.

(The writer is a senior Washington-based journalist. She can be reached at @seemasirohi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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