For only the third time in US history the House of Representatives has impeached a president.
As provided in the Constitution, Donald Trump is now to be tried by the US Senate, sitting as a jury of 100 jurors. This trial will take place at a date in early 2020 to be determined. The general election set for November and the heated campaign that will precede it will energise those Senators standing for re-election…and over Trump in his bid for a second term.
Just as the impeachment vote was cast almost entirely along partisan lines, with only three Democrats voting against impeachment, along with every single Republican, the process appears deeply polarised along party lines. The same partisan polarisation will mar the trial. Consequently, the outcome seems all but certain: Trump will be found by the majority of the Republican Senators to be not guilty.
Will the time, energy, cost, and political capital invested in the impeachment process from beginning to end have been wasted? Could not the boundless resources of US political leadership be put to better use managing the many challenges facing America at home and abroad than bickering on Capitol Hill? Is this episode to be remembered as nothing more than a Democratic ‘witch hunt’ founded on ‘fake news’ designed by the ‘deep state’ to deny Trump ‘due process’ and subvert the will of the people that elected Trump to the presidency in 2016? Will the impeachment initiative, if it fails, hurt the Democrats more than the Republicans and assure the re-election of Trump in November?
I propose an emphatic ‘no’ to these questions.
First, it is not certain that all Republican senators will put partisan solidarity above the Constitution, the national interest, and the facts of the indictment. A yes vote by only four Republicans, added to the votes of the Democrats, would assure a guilty verdict. Intelligent Republicans of principle must be reflecting on where their loyalty as legislators lies. And two-thirds of them are not electorally vulnerable for another two, or four, years, so could vote their conscience.
Second, the value of any trial rests not only on achieving a conviction but also on its informational, educational, legal, and institutional reinforcement of civic standards of good governance. The Trump trial will be transparent and all evidence for and against him will be on the public record for Americans, and the world, to assess. It will reaffirm the precedents of the Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton impeachment trials and reaffirm also the principles of the Constitution, particularly the fundamental tenet of legislative and legal checks on the use and abuse of power by the executive. It may set new precedents to guide future impeachment trials. And it may deter future presidents from attempts to enlarge the scope of executive privilege at the expense of legislative and judicial oversight as prescribed by the Constitution and US statutes.
Third, policy continuity and useful legislation have not been displaced by the impeachment proceedings, despite media fixations. On December 18, the House and Senate approved a new trade treaty with Canada and Mexico in which the Democrats voted with the Republicans, showing that bipartisanship on substantive national interests is still the norm. American trade, diplomacy, and security policies (albeit roiled by Trump’s tariffs, tweets, and impulsive decisions) have continued alongside the partisan wrangling on Capitol Hill.
Fourth, the trial will give Trump and his supporters a forum in which to assert their defence of the Trump presidency. Optimists hope to see a reasoned rebuttal based on facts and the weight of evidence brought forward in the articles of impeachment rather than the barrage of epithets launched so far by Republicans and pro-Trump social media that simple-mindedly deny the legitimacy of the Democratic Party, impugn the character of critics of the Trump administration, and undermine the credibility of US intelligence and security agencies and established media organisations. A reasoned and robust defence of Trump will strengthen the American political and legal system and should be welcomed.
Finally, there is a risk that the impeachment and trial will further entrench the Trump and Republican ‘base’, by casting Trump as an innocent victim, and will lead to a Trump and Republican victory in November. It is a risk worth taking because the impeachment is based firmly on evidence, law, and the Constitution. Electoral defeat of the Democrats is not certain, given the variety of demographics and political views across the vast electorate, but if it occurs it is less disastrous than condoning the undermining of civility, lowering of standards of good governance, and erosion of the checks-and-balances system perpetrated by Trump. In historical perspective, the Democrats will be praised for courage in taking the risk to restore high political standards and to uphold the Constitution even if paying an electoral cost.