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Trump’s Biggest Challenge

Trump’s Biggest Challenge
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Above: Acting US ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor (R), and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent take oath before the US House Committee during the impeachment hearings for President Donald Trump/Photo: UNI

If the Senate is unlikely to convict the US president of any impeachment charge because Republicans control the vote, it is unknown what impact this will have on voters during the upcoming presidential elections

By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

The current presidential impeachment process in the United States demonstrates that long-simmering differences of opinion regarding politics, laws, and behaviour are no longer hidden behind any veil of fairness and sincerity.

Because Democrats have majority control in the House of Representatives, they control the infrequently-used Impeachment Clause of the US Constitution for removal of federal office-holders for high crimes and misdemeanours. The back and forth of the proceedings is like listening to a salesperson extol the medicinal qualities of chalk and cheese.

In American politics, there is no formal vote for “no confidence”. Impeachment is effectively no-confidence at the point of a gun. The House votes articles of impeachment, but the Republican-controlled Senate sits as the jury, giving the president a sense that the Democrats are pointing a toy water pistol.

President Donald Trump’s feckless use of presidential power is captured in the alleged extortion of the Ukrainian government: You give us political dirt on possible 2020 political opponent Joe Biden, and we will release $400 million in Congressionally approved military aid for Ukraine’s border war with Russia. The complaint about the apparent quid pro quo offer came in a “whistleblower’s” official statement regarding what Trump said to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a phone call.

The preponderance of testimony available supports the claim that Trump wanted something of personal political value in exchange for the funding, which is illegal under US law. This put Republicans in a defensive posture, one best exhibited by GOP Congressman Jim Jordan. With smirking self-confidence Jordan questions in rapid-fire and convoluted sentences, he habitually shakes his head in disbelief if witnesses either can’t understand, or can’t believe, what he’s saying.

History of Impeachment

“The President, Vice-President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

— US Constitution, Article II, Section 4

The process spelled out elsewhere in the Constitution requires a majority vote of the House to impeach, followed by a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict and remove. Few details are provided as to exactly what constitutes an impeachable offence. There are no elaborate rules of procedure or vast set of detailed statutes and case law to guide impeachment. It’s essentially a political process rarely used.

America’s founders feared the potential for abuse of executive power. Impeachment evolved from the 14th century as a way for the British parliament to hold the King’s ministers accountable for their public actions. Alexander Hamilton of New York explained in March 1788 in Federalist 65 (the pamphlets promoting adoption of the Constitution) that impeachment varies from civil or criminal courts in that it strictly involves the “misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust”. Individual colonial constitutions had provided for impeachment for “maladministration” or “corruption” before the US Constitution was written.

There have been three impeachments, with those of President Johnson in 1868 and President Clinton in 1998 both failing by a single vote in the Senate. The third never got to the Senate as President Richard Nixon resigned on August 9, 1974, just before the Congress prepared to vote on Articles of Impeachment, effectively an indictment for crimes related to pre-election malfeasance at Nixon’s direction.

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Gifted extended question time by other Republicans at the House Intelligence Committee hearing opening day, Jordan tried to rattle the calm, precise demeanour of Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, who provided damning testimony about the things Trump said.

Jordan ranted that the committee should hear from the whistleblower, the person Jordan claimed started all of this. Jordan’s overly confident demeanour suggests that he believes his own telling of what happened, facts being non-essential.

Democratic Congressman Peter Welch commented: “I’d be glad to have the person who ‘started it all’ come in and testify, President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,” pointing to the witness chair.

Welch went on to say this impeachment is not a dispute about the power of the president to be arbitrary, but a dispute about the misuse of power.

House rules allow a member to behave like a whirling dervish if desired and Jordan did. Walking around, whispering to fellow members, leaving the room, returning to hand out folders, he did his best to distract from the business at hand. Republicans appointed him to the committee only last week expressly because they lack confidence in the ranking Republican, Devin Nunes, who is an apologist for Trump without the physical or emotional demeanour necessary for televised hearings.

The president has refused to let White House advisers respond to Congressional subpoenas for testimony. Perhaps because the evidence is right in the call summary; his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has publicly advertised the whole scheme; Ambassador Gordon Sondland admitted to conveying the extortion message to Ukraine. The White House prefers the belief that Trump can’t be investigated. Trump skirted prosecution for obstruction of justice due to regulations against indicting a sitting president.

“Every serious scholar who adheres to the view that a sitting president cannot be indicted combines that view with the belief that the impeachment process is the way to deal with a lawless president,” pointed out Neal Katyal. “Otherwise a president could engage in extreme wrongdoing, and the American people would have no remedy.”

Throughout the hearing, Democrats tried to get the witnesses to admit that Trump’s behaviour constituted an impeachable offence, while Republicans attempted to discredit the diplomats.

If the Senate is unlikely to convict Trump of any impeachment charge because Republicans control the vote, then the unknown is what impact all of this information has on voters who have not yet made up their minds on Trump’s culpability.

— The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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