It has finally begun. The third trial of an acting president of the United States in the history of the republic, which will decide on whether to remove him from office, began Tuesday in the US Senate, transformed into a High Court for the occasion, under the formal leadership of Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts.
There have only been two other such trials since 1787: the one against Andrew Johnson in 1865 and the one against Bill Clinton in 1999. The most highly anticipated one, against Richard Nixon in 1974, never took place because Nixon chose to resign.
This tells us just how exceptional the procedure of impeachment is, included in the Constitution but almost never used because of the difficulty of reaching the necessary majorities (a simple majority in the House and a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate to remove a president from office). Rivers of ink have been spilled on this issue because of the ambiguity of the Constitutional formula on what is necessary to remove a president from office: he or she must have been guilty of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” basically meaning serious crimes against the state.
Despite the fact that the history of the United States is dotted with presidents who have been guilty of the most nefarious deeds—particularly invading other countries near and far without congressional authorization as required by the Constitution—the two trials against Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were both striking in the banality of the offenses invoked: removing federal officials without authorization for the former, lying about his history of adultery for the latter. They were politicized pretexts that failed to sway the required supermajority in the Senate in either case.
Trump’s situation is different: the New York billionaire who conducted a hostile takeover of the Republican Party in 2016 and then won the election despite getting three million fewer votes than his opponent has been under a cloud of suspicion of high treason ever since the day he took office.
The Democrats are convinced—and they have plenty of good arguments—that he was only able to win thanks to the covert support of the Russians, who flooded American voters with fake news before the elections with the complicity of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm owned by two American billionaires. There was a very long investigation on this matter conducted by a special prosecutor, Robert Mueller, who, however, did not come to sufficiently clear conclusions to justify starting the process of impeachment (there was no proverbial “smoking gun” proving Trump’s guilt).
The Democrats chose to indict Trump on just two counts: manipulating US foreign policy towards Ukraine in order to dig up dirt on prospective Democratic candidate Joe Biden and, later on, interfering with the Congressional investigation and obstructing the course of justice.
The evidence that he did indeed do these things is overwhelming, but the Republicans’ defense will be that presidents can do what they want in terms of foreign policy and therefore there was no crime, and since there was no crime, no obstruction of justice could have taken place. This would be a very weak line of argument in a real courtroom, but the trial being conducted before the Senate is a political one, and the majority of senators have already decided long ago that they would acquit Trump without thinking too much about it.
Tuesday, the proceedings started as planned, with clashes about the rules to be adopted for the trial, particularly on whether to hear any witnesses or not, something the Republicans were against (for fear that new facts might be revealed that would point to Trump’s guilt) while the Democrats were in favor. As expected, the Republican majority won out. It will be interesting to see whether Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts will decide to use his powers to influence the conduct of the trial or whether he will simply follow the orders of the Republican majority, which wants to be done with this matter in a few days.
It’s not clear what effect this political spectacle will have on the opinions of the regular citizens, who will be called to the polls 10 months from now to elect not only the next President but also the House of Representatives and a third of the Senate.
For now, the level of support for Trump among the American people is unchanged: he has the approval of a minority (around 42%), but a solid one. The polls say that a majority of respondents are convinced that Trump is indeed guilty, while people are more divided on the question of whether he should be removed from office. The most likely outcome is that in 10 days’ time, the trial will end with an acquittal—but the final verdict that will be delivered by the voters in November is much less certain.
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