United States President Donald Trump’s trial is set to get underway today, after he became only the third president in history to be impeached last year. But will he be removed from office?
The short answer is “no” and one could say this with 99.99% certainty – the only reason why the 0.01% of uncertainty exists is because the evidence against Trump is so damning. However, for Trump to be removed from office, two-thirds of the Senate will have to vote against Trump. In an age of major partisanship in America, it is highly, highly unlikely that a Senate that is dominated by Republicans (53 seats to the Democrats’ 45) and led by Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell will be voting along the same lines as Democrats. In short, American politics has become more about playing for a “team” than doing what’s right for the people
In fact, McConnell has already said, unequivocally that he will not be voting to remove Trump from office, regardless of what evidence is produced during the trial. In a story published by USA Today in December, McConnell admitted to being biased in Trump’s favour.
“I’m not an impartial juror,” he said. “This is a political process. There is not anything judicial about it.”
“Impeachment is a political decision. The House made a partisan political decision to impeach,” he said. “I would anticipate we will have a largely partisan outcome in the Senate. I’m not impartial about this at all.”
So that’s the short answer… the result of this trial is a forgone conclusion. Trump will continue to occupy the Oval Office until January 2021 at least. So where’s the story here?
Well, firstly, Trump is only the third president to be impeached after Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. Both were acquitted, so Trump would be the first to be removed from office if he actually does go down. Yet, Clinton was acquitted because his impeachment trial was effectively over his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, rather than an actual criminal action.
Johnson’s trial, which was over 11 “high crimes and misdemeanors”, had more to do with Johnson’s disagreements with the other branches of government, and more specifically Congress. He was eventually acquitted because the Senate agreed that it was a partisan disagreement, rather than actual criminality.
There is one other example of a President’s criminality that must be addressed, however, and The Watergate scandal is so infamous that we now use “gate” as a suffix for every scandal that arose since that massive historical event. And what was it that President Richard Nixon was accused of, that led to him being the first and only president to ever resign from office? He was found guilty of orchestrating the break-in to the DNC (Democratic National Committee) headquarters (the Watergate complex) in order to get information on his political rivals. His resignation made any impeachment trial unnecessary, but there is little doubt that if a trial had run its course, he would have been found guilty.
And that’s almost exactly the case with Trump.
What is Trump being accused of?
He’s actually being accused of two things. Firstly, his alleged attempts to get the Ukranian government to announce an investigation into Joe Biden (former Vice-President under Barrack Obama and front-runner at the time for the Democratic nomination) and his son Hunter on corruption charges. This would have been a major advantage for Trump’s re-election campaign with the Presidential election taking place in November.
Secondly, after Trump’s White House refused to allow staff to testify in front of Congress for the impeachment trial (which Trump lost), he’s being accused of obstruction of Congress – the body which is holding him to account: hence, impeachment.
[Also note that Trump’s accusations of collusion with the Russian government, “Russiagate“, that dominated headlines for three years, have nothing to do with this trial and Trump was already found not to be guilty of any wrongdoing].
It all started in August last year when a whistle-blower accused Trump, while House Majority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, drew up articles of impeachment and conducted an investigation between October and December. The House or Congress (which is controlled by Democrats) then voted to impeach Trump in December, which takes us to the Senate Trial which gets underway today.
How does the Senate operate?
The Senate is what is referred to in political theory as the “upper house” of a bicameral legislature, which is how the United States’ branches of government are structured. In the UK, you get the House of Lords and the Hose of Commons. The House of Commons is the “lower house” and more closely resembles “the voice of the people”, so to speak, as opposed the House of Lords, whose representatives are elites. Congress would be the “lower house” in the US.
So which has more power? It’s a hard question to answer, because their powers are different. When the Founders set up the Constitution in the US, they did so to avoid partisanship, but in practice what ends up happening most of the time is that one legislature cancels the other out (this includes the executive branch – the president – too).
The Senate’s major advantage over the House is that it appoints Federal judges (lifetime appointments) who are in charge of interpreting the laws of the land. This used to be respected as a major decision, but in recent years it has been far less impartial a process. the House, however, controls the budget and controls what the President can do in a state of emergency – which is equally important.
A lot of the nuances here change over time, according to the state of affairs and which party controls which parts of the legislature. However, the general consensus is that, right now, the Senate is the more powerful body. And with regards to these impeachment proceedings, the Senate definitely holds all of the cards here. They decide which witnesses they will call to the floor, they decide on the rules for the trial, they decide on every parameter that will dictate how the trial is framed. And the person with the most power in this entire scenario is Mitch McConnell…
What evidence do we have?
President Trump’s actions have been erratic to say the least. Shortly after the phone call between him and Ukrainian Prime Minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, on 25 July, the recording was hidden in a secure server likely because of the unsavoury nature of the call. However, a rough transcript of the call was released by the White House amidst all the allegations. In the transcript, Zelensky asks Trump for an increase in military aid (which the US has been providing ever since the Crimea dispute with Russia that began in 2014), to which Trump responds with “I would like you to do us a favour though.”
Trump asks about about the Biden family’s allegedly corrupt dealings with a Ukrainian prosecutor. And, of course, this would boil down to Hunter Biden’s appointment to the board of a Ukrainian energy company. However, Trump denies this allegation saying that there was “no quid pro quo”, meaning that the release of aid was not on condition of any investigation into the Biden’s. Trump released military aid to Ukraine shortly before the whistle-blower’s accusations emerged.
However, there have been many disputes to Trump’s defence, including but not limited to, the US Ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her position for undermining Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden. She testified in Congress by explaining how she was recalled due to a smear campaign that was run against her. She, of course, was privy to the conversation between Trump and Zelensky and testified that she was “shocked” by the call.
In another part of her testimony, she went into detail about the smear campaign against her, claiming that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and his associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman orchestrated efforts along with a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor to carry out the efforts that led to her being recalled. Trump has denied these allegations and even knowing who Parnas is. Since then, pictures of Parnas and Trump together have emerged, while Parnas has directly accused Trump of being dishonest.
Text Messages between top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, and Parnas have since emerged, showing that that Parnas, who Rudy Giuliani used to communicate with Ukrainian officials, texted with Rep. Nunes’ aide, Derek Harvey, extensively throughout 2019. It provides key new evidence that Nunes’ team was aware of and involved in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden.
So now we find ourselves in a place where, among other people in less clear-cut positions, there are five people involved in the effort to carry out Trump’s alleged demand for an investigation into the Bidens. However, the question is about which witnesses will be called to appear before the Senate and whether there are enough Republican Senators that are willing to join Democrats and Independents and vote with a supermajority (66%) to remove Trump from office. Furthermore, because such a thing would be unprecedented in US history, it’s unclear whether the Senate actually has that power and we’re likely to face a case in the US Supreme Court to confirm whether or not it does.
Whatever the case may be, however, this is undoubtedly going to be a watershed moment in history and we can watch it all unfold before our eyes today at 1pm EST (GMT-5).