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With House Speaker Nancy Pelosi having declared that Congress will now open up impeachment proceedings against President Trump, the question now must be raised: what path will the Democrats take in building their case against him? Can they develop a sufficiently-convincing picture of a corrupt, dangerous president that ultimately stands as unfit for office?
The “smoking gun” that has prompted Pelosi to take action is the reports of an inappropriate conversation conducted between President Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. In that conversation, Trump actively requested that Ukraine work with the US Attorney-General to dig up information regarding Joe Biden and his son Hunter, implying that there was impropriety in their dealings in Ukraine. Critics have taken this as an act of coercion against the Ukrainian government: Trump had frozen military aid to Ukraine that would assist in their conflict with Russian-armed insurgents that aim to effectively annex the former Soviet state, prior to his conversation with President Zelensky. This is therefore being considered a “shakedown” of sorts: if Ukraine would help to dig up dirt against Biden, Trump would release the funds.
This would likely be a violation of the Hobbs Act, which forbids political officials from extorting others for personal gain through acts required of their office. Barbara McQuade of The Daily Beast makes this point rather clearly:
“The federal bribery statute makes it a crime for a public official to demand anything of value in exchange for performing an official act. A statute known as the Hobbs Act defines extortion as obtaining property from another, with his consent, under color of official right. “Property” is defined to mean anything of value, tangible or intangible. The essence of both crimes is a demand by a public official to obtain something for himself to which he is not entitled in exchange for performing an official act of his office.”Barbara McQuade, The Daily Beast: “If Whistleblower Is Right, Trump May Have Committed Extortion And Bribery”.
This is obviously not the first time that Trump has been implicated in a Federal crime: his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, implicated him as an unindicted co-conspirator in violating Federal campaign finance laws, while Robert Mueller’s report not only detailed multiple instances in which members of the Trump Campaign openly lied, but also made a compelling case that suggested that Trump may have actively sought to obstruct justice. Trump’s sole protection against criminal prosecution, at present, stems from a memo issued by the Department of Justice during the Nixon affair, in which they stated that a sitting President could not be indicted. Mueller was clear about this during his statement, observing that:
“And as set forth in the report after that investigation, if we had had confidence that the President clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.
We did not, however, make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime. The introduction to the volume two of our report explains that decision. It explains that under long-standing Department policy, a President cannot be charged with a federal crime while he is in office. That is unconstitutional. Even if the charge is kept under seal and hidden from public view, that too is prohibited. The special counsel’s office is part of the Department of Justice and by regulation it was bound by that Department policy. Charging the president with a crime was, therefore, not an option we could consider.”Robert Mueller, Press Conference, 29th May 2019: Full Transcript
There has also been considerable speculation as to whether the President has violated the Emoluments Clause (Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution) whilst in office, particularly given that this specific clause is designed to protect the United States against a President who might be subject to foreign influence as a result of being financially beholden to foreign interests. If Trump has been personally profiting from his Presidency, that in itself would be a violation: his proposal to hold next year’s G7 summit at his golf course at Doral, Miami would be a perfect example of this: ultimately, the Federal Government (and therefore the taxpayer) would have to foot the bill for security upgrades and all expenditures relating to the summit – this would ultimately end up in Trump’s pocket.
We have little reason to doubt that the Democrats will be pursuing all of these avenues during the process of impeachment: their objective now will be to lay out all the evidence that the six separate committees can gather, and make their case for the clear unsuitability of the President to hold high Federal office. It’s fair to suggest that Trump, perhaps more than any President since Nixon, has given Congress reason to consider their most serious act of political rebuke: his casual relationship to the truth, his divisive attitude towards his fellow Americans, his controversial “America First” approach to foreign policy (which has clearly damaged the reputation of the United States abroad, and undermined any moral authority and leadership it may once have been able to claim), and his obstructive actions with regards to Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch have all but handed the Democrats a mandate to hold him accountable.
Although the Democrats have been hesitant to take the step of moving towards impeachment proceedings up until now, it could well be argued that this is precisely what the electorate wanted: a Congress that would hold the president responsible for his conduct in office. Had they been satisfied with the country’s direction, would we not have seen the previous Republican majority maintained in the House?
Of course, the risk for the Democratic Party is significant here: Trump will naturally spin their move to impeach him as “anti-American” and “un-democratic,” having already declared their concerns with regards to the Ukraine phonecall to be “Witch Hunt garbage.” Although it seems likely that the Democrats will indeed be able to successfully impeach Trump (since this requires only a simple majority (218 votes out of the 435 representatives — the Democrats control 235 seats), the invariable question is whether the Republican-controlled Senate will vote to convict Trump once Articles of Impeachment have passed the House. Should they acquit Trump, that could very easily be spun as complete exoneration, and perhaps undermine Democratic Party efforts to unseat Trump, catapulting him into a second term in the Oval Office.
The stakes are certainly high here, so one thing is abundantly clear: the House needs to develop a water-tight case against Trump to provide the best chance of removing him from office. They certainly have a lot of things they can potentially work with, however, so those feeling dismal about the Democrat’s chances in this respect should take time to consider the preponderance of evidence already available to the public.
That the Democrats have a strong case to make is clear enough. The inevitable question is whether that case will be sufficient to convince a politically-charged and highly-divided electorate that the President is unfit for office, serving his own interests above their own.
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