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Donald J Trump is looking down the barrel of a metaphorical gun once again. Trump has been one of the most controversial national leaders in recent memory, with the native New Yorker facing fierce opposition to his Presidency from Democrats in a way which mirrors what his predecessor, Barack Obama, faced from Republicans.
However, whilst Obama faced some political crises, not least the Benghazi episode, Trump’s political firestorms are normally ones of his own doing. The Mueller investigation sought to determine the depth and breadth of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Elections – and to determine whether there was any attempt to “collude” (albeit not the legal term) with the Russians to bring about an unfair advantage for the Trump campaign. The investigation cleared Trump’s campaign of any coordinated attempt to work with the Russians, but stopped short of declaring him innocent of obstructing justice, not least because according to Justice Department guidance, a sitting President cannot be indicted for any criminal charges.
Now, Trump was accused by a CIA whistleblower of acting inappropriately by asking the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Volodymyr Zelensky, to reopen an investigation into Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s son which had been previously closed. In the days prior to the phone call between Trump and Zelensky, the US had withheld some $400 million in military aid to Kiev, which Trump’s opponents are alleging was done in order to put pressure on Ukraine to accede to Trump’s request.
Some Democrats have long called for Trump’s impeachment. But Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives has long resisted such a move, arguing it would strengthen Trump’s hand going into the 2020 election, unless it had broad support. Pelosi has now changed her tune, saying that Trump’s behaviour merits a thorough investigation by Congress, with Democratic-controlled committees such as the Intelligence and Justice committees conducting their own analysis. The aim? To impeach Trump.
The problem facing the Democrats, however, is one of simple math – Trump can be impeached by the House of Representatives with a simple majority of 50% + 1, and he will be, barring an internal Democratic rebellion. Their problem lies within the Senate. In order to remove the President from his position, the Senate, following a House impeachment, must vote with a ⅔ majority after conducting its own investigations into the matter.
The Republicans control 52 seats in the Senate, the Democrats 46, with a further two members being independent (although they are allied with the Democrats). For Trump to be removed from office, 66 individuals would need to vote in favour – meaning the Democrats would need to convince 18 Republican Senators to remove their party’s President. A tall order indeed.
The only way this will happen is if these Republican Senators feel that the President is a greater liability to their party than his removal would be. So far, most Republicans have largely fallen in line behind Trump since the 2016 election, even if some of them were vehemently against him in the first place. Trump has widespread support amongst the Republican base. Going against him may lead to a backlash amongst the constituents of would-be Republican rebels. Not an easy position to be in.
What is curious here is that Nancy Pelosi, despite her previous statements, has decided to move forward on impeachment. She knows that it may well backfire on her party in the period leading up to a Presidential election next year. So she is trying to move proceedings forward as quickly as possible.
This is a big political gamble on the part of the Democrats, and one that I cannot say I fully grasp as yet. They know they will lose the Presidency if they do not convince the American public of the case for impeachment, but they have moved ahead anyway. They may know something we don’t. What is certain is that this will complicate Trump’s re-election strategy, and mean he will need to divert attention and resources from his campaign, and his domestic and foreign agenda to defend himself in the impeachment process. This may weaken him in the run up to 2020, while emboldening those participating in the Democratic primaries.
Maybe Pelosi and the Democrats are playing the long game. But it is a big gamble, and the Democrats have gone all in on impeachment. Next year will be a mess in US politics, which may anger the US President, whose behaviour will become even more erratic. Interesting times lie ahead.
Matthew Bugeja – Partner Ci Consulta Diplomatique.Expert – GeoPolitics Advisory Services