Will Trump be removed from office?
For the first time, reasonable people in the United States have begun to speculate that President Donald Trump could be convicted by the Senate and thus removed from office. The likelihood is still low, but Trump's position is weakening, and opinion polls are steadily moving against him. It is widely assumed that the House of Representatives will vote to impeach him, sending the question of his presidency to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is needed and Republicans hold a majority.
Trump has been behaving nearly hysterically in public, his language increasingly reckless and vulgar. And he's made major foreign-policy errors that have enraged members of his own party. Trump's agreement, in a late-night call with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to remove US troops in northeastern Syria incited a calamity there (not for the first time that America betrayed its Kurdish allies). Turkish troops have now entered northeastern Syria, and Syrian forces are advancing there as well. ISIS prisoners have escaped from some prisons once guarded by Kurds.
Russia, no surprise, is once more at the heart of Trump's foreign policy and is benefiting both from Trump agreeing to Erdogan's request and his allies' pressure on Ukraine. Trump tends to believe any fantasy he is told, in particular conspiracy theories about the 2016 election—in this case that the real culprit wasn't Russia, which has been proven to have helped Trump, but Ukraine. Trump wanted Ukraine's new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate a myth put in Trump's head by his personal attorney Rudolph Giuliani that Ukraine helped his 2016 rival, Hillary Clinton.
Giuliani's role in the Ukraine scandal has been coming to light in the US, and an army of reporters is now trying to track down what else he's been up to that affects US foreign policy and domestic politics, as well as who his other clients are—and who is paying him in his supposed role as Trump's private attorney. Giuliani, once the much-admired mayor of New York City, has become a macabre figure of national mirth, seemingly out of control in his numerous television appearances. It's known that he had business interests of his own in Ukraine—including in the highly corrupt natural gas industry, in which Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board of a company at a time that his father was vice president and charged with cleaning up Ukraine's widespread corruption. (No misdeeds by either Biden have been found.)
And then, two Russian-born clients of Giuliani's, who had been living in the US and were also involved in Ukraine's energy industry, were arrested at Dulles airport outside Washington, charged with having made illegal campaign contributions of USD 630,000, beginning in 2016, to Republican candidates and political action committees, including USD 325,000 to a pro-Trump PAC. Trump denied that he knew the two men, despite photos of the three of them at a White House dinner. "I have a picture with everybody," Trump said. This money is believed to have been provided by a Russian oligarch.
These donations included a large one to a Republican congressman whom they successfully pressed to demand the dismissal of the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who had been pursuing an anti-corruption agenda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fired Yovanovitch in May, though a State Department official told her she had done nothing wrong. Despite White House objections, Yovanovitch testified behind closed doors before a House subcommittee. But she did release to the public her opening statement, which emphasised the "hollowing out" of the State Department during the Trump presidency.
State Department personnel have reportedly become all the more demoralised by Pompeo's role in carrying out Trump's political agenda, in particular his perceived failure to protect Yovanovitch, a respected career Foreign Service officer. Pompeo is known to have presidential ambitions and has been careful not to alienate Trump or his followers. Several department officials were also troubled by Giuliani's foreign-policy freelancing, and Giuliani is now under criminal investigation for violating lobbying laws.
Trump's colossal blunder in agreeing to Erdogan's request to pull US troops out of the way, so that Turkey could invade Kurdish-controlled territory in northeastern Syria, has worsened his political situation considerably. The Kurds enjoy bipartisan support for their loyalty to the US in Iraq and Syria, and now the US was selling them out. Trump came under searing attack even from Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the few Republican politicians to defend Trump's approach to Zelensky. Also, most unusually, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was critical. "A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime," McConnell said. "And it would increase the risk that ISIS and other terrorist groups regroup." Trump's defence of the decision was truly bizarre: the Kurds hadn't helped the US during the World War II Normandy invasion. A bipartisan congressional group prepared tough sanctions to be imposed on Turkey. Trump imposed some that were weaker.
Trump recently lost a string of court cases, including one on whether he must turn over his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee chairman, and another on his declaration of a national security emergency in order to divert military construction funds to pay for his infamous wall. Now, he has threatened to sue Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff for trying to impeach him. Trump has a long-time habit of making such threats and not following through. But Trump did have his White House counsel send Pelosi a letter asserting that the impeachment inquiry is unconstitutional and vowing that the administration will not cooperate with it at all. Trump's defiance of Congress virtually guarantees that he will be impeached for obstruction, among other possible charges. Further testimony damaging to Trump is expected this week.
Assuming the House ultimately votes to impeach Trump, the fact remains that there are far fewer votes in the Senate than will be needed to convict him and remove him from office. But the willingness of Congress—including the Senate—to continue tolerating his dangerous conduct in office, including threats to US national security, is now truly in question.
Elizabeth Drew is a Washington-based journalist and the author, most recently, of Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon's Downfall.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2019.
(Exclusive to The Daily Star)