Like any major story, the impeachment of the United States President has garnered not only extensive news coverage but also a steady supply of social media interest. The impeachment of Donald Trump, and the preceding five weeks of trials, has lent itself particularly well to mockery and memes.
But while the trial has been fertile ground for endless amusement, particularly at Trump’s expense, it has resulted in only the third impeachment of a President in US history. The world will have to wait until January to learn of Trump’s fate, when the Senate will vote on whether to convict and thus remove him from office: this demands a two-thirds majority and is an unlikely outcome from the Republican-held chamber. But whatever the result of the proceedings, they could have major repercussions for the country’s political future – not least the upcoming 2020 presidential race.
Before casting ahead to late 2020, the run-up to which is set to be another headline-dominating saga, let’s consider how it all began. Because if you’re anything like me, your enthusiasm for dissecting complex American politics is likely to have waned over the Christmas period.
Earlier this year, impeachment proceedings were brought against Trump following accusations that he sought help from Ukraine to boost his electoral prospects in 2020. The basis of the Democrats’ case was a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, rough transcripts of which revealed that Trump had encouraged Zelensky to investigate discredited claims about Hunter and Joe Biden.
Joe Biden is one of Trump’s major competitors in the 2020 presidential election, and his son Hunter worked for a Ukrainian energy company when his father was Vice President. While Hunter was part of the company, criminal investigations were brought against its owner. Trump is accused of pushing the Ukrainians to pursue investigations into the role of Hunter in this criminal activity, and subsequently Joe Biden’s supposed wrongdoing in having the investigator dismissed.
Trump is also accused of withholding $400 million of military aid (already approved by Congress; designed to be used in the conflict against Russia) and a meeting with the White House from Ukraine, with the intent of exchanging these for dirt on the Bidens. According to the Democrats, whose case is led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, this amounts to an abuse of presidential power. Trump was also accused of obstructing Congress through his refusal to cooperate with the inquiry.
Five weeks of trials saw explosive testimonies in public and private, from figures including US Ambassador to the EU David Sondland and William Taylor, acting US Ambassador to Ukraine. Ultimately, the Democrat-dominated House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump on the basis of the evidence.
There is almost no limit to the level of detail in which the impeachment can be explored: the weeks of trials and testimonies, questions of who colluded with who over what. I discovered this fact while doing research for this article. So instead of regaling the minutiae of the case, I’ll consider its context: a legislature and country, and an impending presidential race hanging over the head of American politics. In other words, what does impeachment mean – and does it matter?
Two US Presidents have previously been impeached, making Trump only the third in history, though none have faced the two-third Senate vote necessary to remove them from office. What can historical impeachments tell us about Trump’s fate in the coming months?
The first of American’s impeached Presidents occupied the White House in a period long before the contemporary political era. Andrew Johnson, a Democrat-turned-Republican who took up the post following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, was impeached for 'high crimes and misdemeanours'. Namely, Johnson had removed from office secretary of war Edwin M Stanton, which put him in violation of the Tenure of Office Act. The President was impeached in 1868, though the Senate fell short of the necessary two thirds vote to remove him from office by just one.
Johnson’s impeachment triggered much reflection on the legislative-executive relationship. It also had many similarities with 2019’s impeachment proceedings, in that it revealed just as much about the American political climate than about the behaviour of the President. Firstly, the House voted along party lines, which was an early sign of why the impeachment process would ultimately fail in having Johnson removed from office. And just as social media has provided practically 24-hour rolling coverage of Trump’s impeachment, the country and media were riveted by Johnson’s.
Most importantly for our comparison between the impeachment of these two Presidents, over one century apart, was the deep contempt within which they are held by their opposition. Since his nomination for the presidency in 2016, Trump’s total political iconoclasm has incited terror, for those who perceive him as a symbol of a divided country, and applause: among his supporters, Trump’s brazen and unorthodox style has heralded a new era of American politics.
Meanwhile, Johnson came under attack by Radical Republicans for his anti-black stance; he supported the abolition of slavery, but only because he perceived it as taking jobs from the white working class. The Radical Republicans never forgave Johnson for his obstruction of political and civil rights for freed blacks. Though not the only problem faced by Johnson’s presidency, his personal style and ideology inevitably put him in the firing line. And while Trump indeed seems to have broken constitutional law, making his impeachment legitimate, it’s worth asking whether impeachment was inevitable in a political climate so deeply divided over his presidency.
Trump may have more in common with Bill Clinton, only the second US President to be impeached more than a century after the first, when it comes to his relationship with the public. This may turn out to be a factor Pelosi and the Democrats have overlooked in their pursuit of impeachment.
Details of Clinton’s impeachment are far better known, not least because the salacious details from the President’s private life revealed via the trial grabbed international headlines. Following an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern, Clinton was impeached for lying under oath, and obstruction of justice. As is likely to happen for the third time in US history, the Senate failed to produce the two thirds majority needed to expel him from office. In spite of his impeachment and revelations about his personal life, the end of Clinton’s presidency was buoyed by high approval ratings, which peaked at 73% in 1999.
What about 2019?
The Democrats have accused Trump of seeking to boost his electoral prospects through foreign connections. But doubts have been raised about their true motivations for pursuing impeachment against Trump. Of course, there is nothing illegal about holding a President accountable – but Pelosi and her team have consistently assumed the moral high ground; impeachment has never been about Trump as a person, but in defence of American values. In her opening speech before the House vote, Pelosi called on the House to 'defend our democracy'. It’s possible that a Texan Democrat gave the game away when he said in May, 'I'm concerned that if we don't impeach this president, he will get re-elected.'
Nevertheless, those with partisan loyalties are not alone in condemning Trump’s action as deeply unconstitutional. Towards the end of impeachment proceedings, four constitutional lawyers were called before the House Judiciary Committee to give their interpretation of the President’s actions. Three of them said in no uncertain terms: grounds for impeachment. Michael Gerhardt of the North Carolina School of Law even described Trump’s behaviour as 'worse than the misconduct of any prior president, including what previous presidents who faced impeachment have done or been accused of doing'.
The fourth expert, however, spoke to the political climate, from which this year’s impeachment proceedings cannot be disentangled: 'I am concerned about lowering impeachment standards to fit a paucity of evidence and an abundance of anger.'
Impeachment could even play into the hands of Trump and his supporters. A political maverick, the President has never been known for his care for political traditions and conventions. And it doesn’t take a deep dive into Twitter to see how his supporters are using the impeachment simply to reinforce their existing perceptions of the President: a straight-talking, to-the-point man with an eye for good business; a man of the people, not a career politician. Trump, of course, plays into this narrative. He said earlier this year, 'I have article 2 [of the Constitution], which says I can do whatever I want as President'.
As it stands, Trump’s approval ratings do not compare favourably to other Presidents at equivalent points in their presidencies. On average, polls place approval for Trump at just less than 43%; the country is equally divided over support for impeachment, with 47% in favour. The polls could paint a better picture, but the Democrats likely would have hoped to have the backing of more Americans in their pursuit of impeachment.
The 2020 presidential election, then, could be embarrassing for the Democrats, especially in light of Trump’s impeachment. While it’s impossible to prove their true motivation, the recent saga will undoubtedly become a major talking point in the upcoming race. Without major popular support, the Democrats may want to focus their attention elsewhere if they want to turn the White House blue.
Lilian Fawcett is an Editor at Backbench