Trump impeachment: The unravelling of the US presidency

It is the predilection of philosophers to look for the truth, like Diogenes of Ancient Greece who set out with a lantern in search of an honest man.

Published: 01st December 2019 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th November 2019 02:48 PM   |  A+A-

Trump and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi

Trump and Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi

It is the predilection of philosophers to look for the truth, like Diogenes of Ancient Greece who set out with a lantern in search of an honest man. His successor in search, Epimenides of Cnossos, formulated the Liar’s Paradox, which quoted him saying, “All Cretans are liars, and therefore I am a liar. All Cretans are not liars.”

The ongoing impeachment paradox that concerns the President of the United States, Donald Trump, who has so far reportedly told around 13,000 lies in  his defence that he always speaks the truth, which seems to be a lie and hence indicates the truth that he is a liar.

What’s the impeachment fuss about? A phone call Trump made to the Ukranian comedian-turned-president Volodymyr Zelensky asking him to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden, the son of his presidential opponent Joe Biden. In recent weeks, Capitol Hill experienced its most bitter hour since the Clinton impeachment inquiry in 1998.

The rarified atmosphere of Washington DC is scoured by the velocity of Trump’s myriad untruths, institutional sabotage, shady business dealings, a craven obedience to Russian President Vladimir Putin against his own country’s interests and facile denials which have landed him in the worst juncture of his tempestuous presidency. The White House has pushed back relentlessly. Its lawyers fought attempts to force witnesses to testify, and defied federal court judgments. It banned subpoenaed officials from deposing before the impeachment hearings committee.

Is Trump right to be worried? He was relieved when the Mueller investigation into allegations that Russia helped Trump steal the election proved to be inconclusive. Alongside Ukrainegate, the president is under severe political and judicial pressure to reveal his tax records—a Federal judge snapped that presidents are not kings.

This could be potentially disastrous to the reelection of the man who calls himself America’s most transparent President ever. After two weeks of public hearings, lawmakers in the House Intelligence Committee are now writing their report which is bound to lead to Trump’s impeachment. Committee Chairman Adam Schiff quoting the overwhelming evidence explained, “The facts are really not contested. It’s really not contested what the president did.”

But will Trump be thrown out of the White House? Unlikely. It is a foregone conclusion that Congress will impeach him. But it is a different story in the Senate. Republicans are solidly behind their president and will not vote to convict him. The president says that he is looking forward to an impeachment trial in the Senate and that he will win. “There has never been so much unity and spirit in the Republican Party, as there is right now!” he tweeted. Why should Trump, who will claim vindication, care about the impeachment report? 

The pivotal figure driving the impeachment drama is Nancy Pelosi, the aggressive Speaker of the House of Representatives. Her political tactic is paying dividends if opinion polls are to be trusted: recent surveys show a drastic dip in the presidential approval rating as well below 50 percent. They also predict he would be defeated in any head-to-head contest with all leading Democratic challengers, who include Biden.

Moreover, Trump trails all major Democratic candidates nationally. Pelosi has achieved what she wanted; even if Trump wins in the Senate and walks, the impeachment has already cast a shadow over his presidency which he cannot hope to survive—he will be the third president in US history to be impeached.

THE CALL THAT RANG THE BELL

What did Donald Trump do wrong? Testimony shows that he withheld USD 400 million in US military aid to arm-twist Ukraine to publically investigate Hunter Biden who worked for Ukrainian energy company Burisimo. At the time Hunter was on Burisimo’s board, Joe was in charge of US diplomatic relations with Ukraine. It was a tense time in the region; Russia under President Putin had invaded Crimea. Ukraine was on edge. Trump, who has exhibited an obsequiousness eagerness to please Putin, has been trying to deflect the blame of election interference from Russia on to Ukraine.

Transcripts show that on July 25, Trump began his phone call with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky with the words, “I would like you to do us a favour, though”—Zelensky had been trying to wrangle a White House visit which has not happened till date. How did the call get leaked? A whistleblower complained that Trump used “the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country” in next year's presidential election and that White House officials were “deeply disturbed” by the call and acted to “lock down” all details of it. 

Is it usual for other people to listen in on the official calls made by the American president? Yes, it is, though not on personal calls. 

Before the president prepares to call a foreign leader, National Security Council (NSC) officials brief him before sitting down in the Oval Office while he makes the call: at least two members of the NSC are usually present. More officials will listen to the presidential call and take notes while sitting in a secure room in another part of the White House—in this case, a secure, soundproof Situation Room situated in the West Wing basement. Their notes are called a “memorandum of telephone conversation” or “memcon”. The call is also transcribed by White House computers.

Then the earlier notes are compared to the electronic version of the call for discrepancies. The memcon and the computer transcriptions are merged as a single document. The Ukraine call had over a dozen listeners, including Senior Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; Lt Gen Keith Kellogg, National Security Adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; White House staffers, State Department Counselor T Ulrich Brechbuhl and intelligence officers. The whistleblower’s revelation came as a pick-me-up for Democrats who were disheartened that the Russia investigation did not give them enough ammunition.

This time, Democrats alleged a “shakedown” of a foreign leader. The president, supported by nearly all Republicans pooh-poohed it as a “nothing call”. Trump tweeted, “It was a perfect call.” But it wasn’t. It exposed the rot and collusion at the highest levels of government.

Why is White House accused of “locking down” all the details of the call? Why is the transcript not stored in the usual computer system? Why are the transcripts released by the White House inconsistent? 
And above all, what did the 30-minute conversation reveal? 

Trump is heard asking Zelensky to discuss Hunter with his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr—a gross impropriety on part of the president that is punishable under law. 

He also asks the Ukrainian president to investigate cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and concluded that Russia was responsible, not Ukraine. Later, Trump lied that CrowdStrike was owned by a Ukrainian. 

Jennifer Williams, a foreign policy aide to Pence, called the phone conversation “unusual and inappropriate” and “more political in nature” than phone calls with other foreign leaders, and had specific references to Trump’s “personal political agenda”.

PLUGGED AND PLAYERS

What is Trump’s tactic? His inner circle has doggedly dug in as the vanguard of the Republicans—a rogues gallery of Washington’s power pantheon. Trump’s tactic was dissimulation and to brazen it out, throw legal hurdles in the way of investigation and get Republican defenders and Fox News to debunk and lampoon the investigation, witnesses, the Democrats and the whistleblowers.

He feigned transparency by acknowledging publically that he personally blocked nearly USD 400 million in military aid to Ukraine but no quid pro quo was involved—through it was nearly USD 400 million quid. Giuliani declared, “It is impossible that the whistleblower is a hero and I’m not.

And I will be the hero! These morons—when this is over, I will be the hero.” Giuliani is accused of dangling a White House visit in front of a hopeful Zelensky in exchange for a public announcement of an Ukrainian government probe against the Bidens. The lawyer is now worried that Trump will throw him under the bus, since new information of his actions show the president’s collusion. “Ask Rudy that,” Trump told a Washington reporter who asked him about the part the attorney played in Ukrainegate. Trump also denied he instructed Giuliani to bully the Ukrainian leader, despite strong proof to the contrary. 

But all was not well. Voluminous evidence has emerged to show that Trump did commit a grievous wrong: it is a crime in the US to solicit help from a foreign power to win an election. Kurt Volker, Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine and the middleman between the US and Ukranian government, testified against the president.

Many officials who owe their positions to Trump gave negative depositions. The most damaging testimony that nailed Trump’s lie came from Trump groupie and US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland himself. He admitted to working at the “express direction” of Trump on the Ukraine deal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who had dismissed any knowledge of Trump’s July 25 call, lost credibility after witnesses revealed that he and Giuliani were together in a shadow foreign policy operation to undermine Ukraine for Putin.

Trump’s pet Attorney General Barr refused Trump’s demand to hold a press conference defending the infamous phone call. He avoided answering US Senator Kamala Harris’s question at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing: “Has the President or anyone at the White House ever asked or suggested that you open an investigation of anyone?”

He dithered until finally answering, “I don’t know.” The bizarre conduct of Trump’s attack dogs and defenders has brought the impeachment inquiry into levels of nuttiness: Pompeo declared that Trump “was appointed by God”. It turns out that Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee and the president’s most ardent supporter who has denied arm-twisting on Trump’s part, had himself visited Ukraine to pursue conspiracy theories involving the Bidens. He could be part of an ethics committee investigation which will sink Trump’s reputation as a liar and coverup artist deeper in the mud.

How damning are the testimonies and who are the players? Plenty. Witnesses included Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine who Trump hates and was fired at Giuliani’s behest; Bill Taylor, who replaced her; George Kent, a senior State Department official; Lt Col Alexander Vindman, a NSC aide who worked on Ukraine; Jennifer Williams, adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Kurt Volker, former special US envoy on Ukraine; Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official; David Hale, another State Department official; Fiona Hill, former director for Europe and Russia at the NSC; Tim Morrison, outgoing senior director for Europe and Russia; David Holmes, a US diplomat in Ukraine; and most critical of all, Sondland. 

Why the Impeachment Motion

Testimony shows that US President Donald Trump withheld USD 400 million in US military aid to arm-twist Ukraine to publically investigate Hunter Biden, who worked for Ukrainian energy company Burisimo. At the time Hunter was on Burisimo’s board, his father Joe Biden— one of Trump’s main Democrat challengers—was in charge of US diplomatic relations with Ukraine. It was a tense time in the region; Russia under President Vladimir Putin had invaded Crimea.

Ukraine was on edge. Trump, who has exhibited an obsequiousness eagerness to please Putin, has been trying to deflect the blame of election interference from Russia on to Ukraine. Transcripts show that on July 25, Trump began his phone call with Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky with the words, “I would like you to do us a favour, though”. How did the call get leaked?

A whistleblower complained that Trump used "the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country" in next year's presidential election and that White House officials were "deeply disturbed" by the call and acted to "lock down" all details of it. 

  • Volker showed text message from Bill Taylor saying, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
  • Michael Atkinson, American intelligence community’s ex-inspector general, testified that the whistleblower’s complaint “appeared credible” and was “of urgent concern.”
  • Yovanovitch testified that Trump told Zelensky that she was “going to go through some things” and suggested that President Putin may have tried to create an “alternate narrative” to hide the Kremlin’s election interference. 
  • George Kent fully testified that Giuliani carried out a “campaign of lies” to smear Yovanovitch and forced Ukraine on Trump’s behalf to investigate Biden.
  • Hill swore that Sondland told Ukrainian officials to start a political investigation against Hunter. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney backed the plan. 
  • Michael McKinley, a former US ambassador, said US missions being used “to procure negative political information for domestic purposes”. He testified that Pompeo did not respond to his suggestions to support Yovanovitch. 
  • Sondland personally delivered the message on September 1 to a top Ukrainian official that unless Ukraine launched an investigation against Hunter, the US would halt all military aid. He had told Congressional investigators that he “could not ignore a directive from the commander-in-chief.” 
  • William B Taylor Jr, former US ambassador to Ukraine, told Congress that “it was becoming clear” to him that a meeting between Trump and the Ukrainian President “was contingent upon the investigation of Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 elections”. Taylor revealed “Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward” and accused Giuliani of setting up an “irregular” diplomatic channel to benefit Trump. 
  • Cooper deposed that the Defense Department had cleared the aid transfer last May after Ukraine met the requirements. She was puzzled when it was blocked by Trump. 
  • Catherine Croft testified that the White House Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, had placed an informal hold on security assistance to Ukraine at the president’s direction and told a colleague that if Trump saw Biden as a “credible rival, it was possible that the Trump administration would choose to change its policy to suit domestic politics”.
  • Lt Col Vindman who had “no doubt” about Trump’s blackmail had reported his concerns to the NSC’s legal counsel. 
  • Timothy Morrison, special assistant to the president, supported Taylor’s testimony 
  • David Holmes had “heard President Trump ask, ‘So he’s gonna do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it’,” and that Zelensky “will do ‘anything you ask him to’,”—Trump was so loud that Sondland had to hold the phone away from his ear. 

DEMOS MEET REPUBLICAN WALL

However, why does Donald Trump reign supreme? Many Senators who allege Trump’s behaviour was “troubling” and showed “poor judgment’ said there wasn’t enough evidence to justify overturning “the will of the people and impeach him”. No Republican senator has yet expressed an inclination to vote to convict him. Even moderate Republican Senators who had seemed to vote against Trump have fallen in line.

Fierce Trump critic and Republican Senator Mitt Romney told an interviewer that Republican lawmakers are not criticising Trump because they are scared of losing the Senate or the presidency to Democrats—they criticise him privately, but do not go public with their feelings. They are also presenting a united front to reassure voters that all is well. The president is on a charm offensive, inviting Senators to sporting events, weekends of s’mores and skeet shooting at Camp David.

Trump even invited Romney to lunch along with his critic, GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine. Republicans believe that Trump’s base of rural, blue collar, working class white voters will give him, and them, a second term: a Gallup Poll in the first week of November showed that 90 percent of Republicans approve of Trump.

Republicans fear that they may have lost the suburban voters and college-educated women: Democrats won a seat where they had been losing for 40 years. The latest poll showed that 50 percent of Americans support impeaching Trump. The highest percentage of support for impeachment and removal of a president was in 1998 against Bill Clinton—29 percent in a CNN poll, and the House Republican majority voted to impeach him. This time Republicans are putting a positive spin on the poll by saying that the percentage hasn’t changed since the last poll.

DEMOCRATS IN DISARRAY

The Republicans are sure that there is no Democratic candidate with the chutzpah and dollars to defeat Donald Trump. Democratic presidential contenders are to the Republicans what Rahul Gandhi is to the BJP. None of them have the personality or a clear agenda. They seem to be in disarray, vague in policy and personality and bicker incessantly. The candidate with strong political and financial credentials is billionaire businessman and Republican-turned-moderate Democrat Mike Bloomberg who has equal if not more money power to challenge Trump.

He had backed 15 Democratic candidates with USD 2.5 million previously in a state gubernatorial poll this year where control of the legislative body went from Republican to Democratic hands. However, he hasn’t made a mark so far, with just 2 percent approval rate from primary voters. But will he make the cut in the part to get the nomination?
Democrats are not too sure.

His decision to contest has not amused anti-rich, Left-of-centre Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren; she accused him of buying democracy with an advertising blitz of USD 37 million; the media moghul refuses to take donations. The 76-year-old Joe Biden is not happy with Bloomberg either: the former veep’s unwelcome public intimacy with women has not endeared him to Democratic primary voters in the #MeToo era.

Only six candidates have qualified so far for the last debate of 2019 to be held in Los Angeles on December 19—Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg. Tulsi Gabbard, businessman Andrew Yang and billionaire Tom Steyer may make it before the December 12 deadline expires. 

In this scenario, support from Democrat voters won’t be enough; the candidates will have to flip fence sitters and a chunk of Republican supporters. Undecided voters could hold the key to making the president. A Trump victory in 2020 will devastate the Democrats who have never had another presidential candidate like Barack Obama since he left the White House. He set the bar too high while Trump lowered it the most.

In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee in the Watergate investigation said in its report, “The purpose of impeachment is not personal punishment; its function is primarily to maintain constitutional government.” Impeachable offences include “undermining the integrity of office, disregard of constitutional duties and oath of office, arrogation of power, abuse of the governmental process, adverse impact on the system of government.” Going by this criteria Trump fits the profile.

The fact that in spite of Trump’s actions and traits—prioriticising Russia’s strategic interests over his own country’s, packing the courts, eroding hallowed American institutions like the military, misusing his presidential powers to benefit his businesses, racism, misogyny, nepotism, threats to shoot immigrants, detaining thousand of child refugees—the president keeps his massive support base is a telling comment about how his country has changed. 

Raisina Hill is watching the proceedings on Capitol Hill cautiously. Even if Trump is impeached, it is unlikely to make much difference to US policy towards India. There are 3.1 million NRIs living in America who form a strong vote base for any political party in the US. President Trump’s enthusiasm for Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Howdy Modi event on September 23 showed that he needs Indian Americans more than the other way around.

Trump has always proved to be an unreliable ally and any president who comes after him will be more consistent in foreign policy. Trump’s visa rules, which are disadvantageous to Indians and Indian companies, have also generated suspicion though the Republican Party has strong support from pro-Hindutva NRIs in the US. Whether Trump goes or stays, the damage he caused America’s institutions will take generations to repair.

Rudy Giuliani: Smooth Operator

The principal figure at the centre of the web of the Ukranian conspiracy is Donald Trump’s by-now-notorious attorney and well-respected former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. That sheen seems to be fading and he looks vulnerable now. His old friend and president seemed ready to sacrifice him to save his own skin as he had done frequently on previous occasions. Trump told a reporter, "No, I didn’t direct him, but he is a warrior, he is a warrior." Giuliani has publicly announced that he was behind the investigation “concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption” on Trump’s behalf. Things could get ugly fast.

He is already being investigated by federal prosecutors related to his doings in Ukraine. With Ukranian business interests of his own, Giuliani was working closely with two influential American Ukranian businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman who are now in jail for election fraud.

They had introduced him to Ukrainian officials to persuade their government to investigate the Bidens. When they complained that Marie Yovanovitch, US ambassador to Kiev, was not cooperating with Trump’s plan to probe Hunter Biden though he was cleared of all wrong doing, Giuliani immediately called up Trump and got her “kneecapped” (her words) because she was not loyal to the president.

Trump had told Volodymyr Zelensky that he would attend his swearing in, which Giuliani had treated as a precondition to a public announcement into a Biden probe. Knowing the Ukranian President’s starry-eyed desire to visit the White House, Giuliani made the probe a precondition for the invitation. The ex-Mayor suspects the White House would make him the fall guy. In an interview on Fox News, he claimed to have “insurance” if Trump tried to “throw him under the bus” and that his “hospital bills would be paid”. The man who colluded with and supported Trump the most could very well be the man who brings him down.

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