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October 9, 2019



October 9, 2019

On September 24, 2019 Nancy Pelosi speaker of the US House of Representatives announced she had initiated an impeachment inquiry against US President Donald Trump.

Impeachment is a process provided in the US constitution through which a senior government official can be tried, convicted and possibly removed from office. It is an arduous process with a very high bar for removal, deliberately so as framers of the US constitution envisioned it to be used only in extreme cases of malfeasance.

As such it has only been used three times to impeach the US president in the centuries-long history of the country. In each case, while the president was impeached by House of Representatives, the Senate failed to come up with the two-thirds vote required for removal.

So what does a president have to do to be considered for impeachment? The US constitution stipulates that a high government official, including the president, may be impeached for ‘Treason, Bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours’. If this language is somewhat vague it appears to be deliberately so. Framers of the constitution did not want to prescribe a precise list of offences, leaving it to the judgment of the people’s representatives.

Trump has been pushing the limits of accepted presidential behaviour from the beginning of his term in office. He appointed his daughter and son-in–law Jared Kushner as presidential advisors, positions for which they had no particular qualifications. Kushner was then appointed to lead negotiations for resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, again with no background in such diplomacy, and in fact with plenty of concerns for conflict of interest due to his close personal friendship with Israeli leader Netanyahu.

Another matter of concern relates to the Trump International Hotel in Washington. It has been informally known that organizations, including foreign governments hosting expensive events at the hotel, may be looked upon in a good light. Consequently, many have lined up to host large banquets there.

On top of it all, many of the president’s closest confidants from his campaign have been accused, convicted and jailed for crimes committed during the course of the campaign. The president however, cannot be tried in any court of law. The only remedy for presidential malfeasance is impeachment.

Over the course of the Trump presidency a few other facts have come to light the country must grapple with. It appears there is no remedy in law for blatant disregard of the constitution by senior leadership. In other words, norms of this constitutional democracy to a large extent rely on key leaders voluntarily upholding them.

An example from the last year of the Obama term is when majority leader of the Senate Mitch McConnell simply refused to give a hearing to President Obama’s nominee for Supreme Court. The constitution gives the Senate role of “advice and consent” but not to simply ignore a nomination.

The country is rapidly learning how far a president can deviate from not only the norms of decency but also norms of democracy and law, and not face any consequences.

As far as the impending impeachment inquiry, what finally broke the proverbial camel’s back was a push by Trump to have foreign governments investigate his political rival Joe Biden before the US government would release already approved aid. This openly violates laws against inviting foreign intervention in US elections.

Yet sadly, given the hyper-partisan climate in the US, even if the House votes to impeach Trump it is unlikely the Republican controlled Senate will come up with two-thirds votes to remove him. Judgment on Trump’s behaviour will ultimately fall in the hands of the electorate in the next election.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Washington DC.

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