• Harriet Ireland

Is this it for Trump?

On Tuesday 25th September Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, announced the opening of an inquiry into impeaching President Trump. Thus, taking the first legal and legislative step towards possibly removing Trump from office, a move later supported by a majority vote in the House. Whilst this decision came after much anticipation from Democrats across the country, it was a surprise to many in Washington. Pelosi had said on multiple occasions that now wasn’t the time to impeach Trump and that there were more vital things U.S. elected representatives could be doing with their time, namely gun reform and health care.

So what changed? Last week a whistle blower came out saying that he was privy to a phone conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25th, in which Trump illegally solicited a foreign campaign contribution from Zelensky. The complaint stipulated that Trump was interested in digging up dirt on Joe Biden along with the further possibility that he was using their aid package as leverage. This possible illegal act is a stronger argument for impeachment than say Trump’s failure to disclose his tax returns. For the fact that the implied action took place during his presidency and involves a foreign power. Such a manipulation could be seen to be a treasonous task and could more obviously constitute a ‘high crime or misdemeanour’ (an intended ambiguity by the Founding Fathers).

Presidents Trump and Zelensky meeting at the UNGA 2019

The whistle blower, believed to be an intelligence official, sees this as a heinous enough act to be a cause of concern. Unlike the Watergate whistle blower ‘Deep Throat’, he is using official intelligence channels to air his concern, not the press. This is important because although he is not the first administration official to leak information about Trump’s misconduct, he is the first to do so concerning a story of such magnitude and for an action which can be supported by evidence, without the possibility of Trump blaming ‘fake news’. It also links so closely to the Muller investigation into Russian collusion, that you have to ask whether Trump learnt nothing the first time. Moreover, the fact that the whistle blower is being taken seriously by Congress (he is expected to give testimony to them later this week), one hopes that his actions will encourage more people in the administration to come forward, possibly adding strength to the inquiry.

In response, the White House on Wednesday released the transcript of the foreign leader’s telephone call. [1] The transcript shows Trump urged Ukraine’s leader to contact Attorney General Barr and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani about opening an inquiry into Joe Biden’s son. However, the transcript is heavily redacted and not a verbatim account of the conversation in question. This poses two questions. If the White House is willing to release the transcript, one must assume that legal counsel doesn’t see it as culpable evidence, with no direct “quid pro quo”. But then if this heavily edited document is the best that the White House can offer as an explanation, then maybe there is more that we are not seeing, that an impeachment inquiry with subpoena power could reveal.

What does this mean? Considering that no President has ever successfully been impeached, it is unlikely that in the remaining time of this Congress Trump will be the first. Mainly because the Senate has the final vote on impeachment and with a Republican majority, many of whom are up for re-election in 2020, they are unlikely to vote in favour of getting rid of Trump. However, Democrats hope that even if official impeachment charges cannot successfully be brought against Trump, an inquiry into his presidency might sway public opinion in their favour. An intense investigation scrutinising all the workings of the Trump administration over the past three years (of which it is expected there will be many) will hopefully sully his reputation enough to sway some swing or Republican voters to flip, or even just bog down his re-election campaign. It will be quite hard to run for another term with a federal inquiry hanging round his neck.

The question we need to be asking now is how influential is this? The 2020 election is still over 13 months away, if this inquiry falls flat on its face, or gets overly bogged down in logistics, the Democrats have wasted their ace (something Pelosi has openly feared), playing it too early before it has enough time to impact a re-election campaign. Similarly, campaigning is what Trump does best. Trump will surely use such an investigation, as ammunition, to paint the process as a Democratic witch hunt, that further necessitates his cry to ‘drain the swamp’. A tactic that worked last time and will most likely work again with the Republican base. Was Pelosi right? Should the Democrats be focusing their energy on getting things done in Congress, to guarantee a legislative majority in 2020, alongside building a strong presidential campaign against Trump? Only time will tell but seeing how this plays out over the next few weeks will be crucial.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ukraine-transcript-read-ukraine-president-phone-call-transcript-pdf-released-today-joe-biden-crowdstrike-2019-09-25/

At the time of writing, Harriet Ireland is a fourth-year student at the University of Edinburgh. She is studying History and Politics. Areas that interest her the most are US politics and UK foreign relations.