Impeachment: Testing Accountability

Last week, and for only the third time in American history, the House of Representatives voted to impeach the President of the United States. In the coming weeks the Senate will hold a trial to determine if he will be removed from office. The House voted on two articles. The first article of impeachment charges an abuse of power, and the second charges obstruction of Congress as it conducted the oversight pertaining to the abuse.

Impeached: Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump. (Photo: ABC News)

While I appreciate the mechanisms the American system of government includes to hold elected officials accountable, I do not believe the current climate will result in a serious process. I believe an impeachment trial, though warranted, will further entrench the political divide in this country, continue eroding US credibility at home and abroad as dysfunctional authoritarianism replaces a functioning democracy, and significantly bolster Trump’s chances at re-election, if not secure it.

Accountability in Theory

Holding elected officials accountable is essential for effective governance. The founders, having lived in a time where the governed had little-to-no recourse against abuses committed by their governors, wanted mechanisms of accountability in their new system of democratic government. It underscored the idea that no one is above the rule of law. The prospect of an official answering to the people – instead of the other way around – is therefore intended to prevent acts of treason, abuse of power, self-dealing, corruption, and misdemeanors, often conducted by those in positions of power.

Surf's up. (Cartoon by Steve Sack)

The strongest accountability mechanism is the franchise. Therefore, holding elected leaders accountable begins at the ballot box. In the 2018 mid-term election Americans voted overwhelmingly against a Republican party that, until January 2019, controlled the Executive Branch and both houses of Congress. The ‘blue tsunami,” as it is called, gave Democrats control of the House of Representatives, and not by just a thin majority. A record number 42 seats flipped in one election. That is a shellacking where I come from.

Accountability in Practice

In some respects, the founder’s blueprint has worked. In others, it has not. The Trump administration has been defined by disdain for the rule of law. In fact, the president believes the office bestows on him the powers of a totalitarian and therefore has conducted himself as such. Therefore, it is no surprise Trump solicited Ukrainian interference in the current presidential election cycle to try and hobble the only candidate, at present, posing a real threat to re-election, Joe Biden; and he used Congressionally appropriated funding for aid to that country as leverage to get it. Nor is surprising that, as ongoing investigations prove the malfeasance, Trump is directing people in his administration to ignore lawfully-served subpoenas to appear before Congress as it conducts its oversight duties granted in Article I of the constitution.

Prior to Democrats taking control of the lower chamber, only the judicial branch had luck holding the administration to account for its most egregious actions implemented as end-arounds when stymied by the law. Now, with control of key committees able to investigate presidential wrongdoing, the House of Representatives can act as a check against a president that has used the Justice Department for political retribution, his office to enrich himself, his bully pulpit to undermine and erode the free press, and his position as the party’s leader to try and disclose the identity of the whistleblower at the heart of his impeachment, which is in fact protected by law.

Lady Justice has had a rough go of it these last few years. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Despite Congress trying to hold the president accountable as defined in the Constitution, I do not believe a fair and honest trial is possible in the current political climate. Donald Trump’s core supporters exercise the same power at the ballot box that flipped the House of Representatives. Republicans of all stripes, especially those from deep red states, have faced angry constituents at home whenever they have shown anything less than lockstep support for a man who has played to their worst fears and deepest hatred. Despite protesting a bit too much at everything Trump’s predecessor did legally, they are too scared to stand up to a much more grievous threat to the country now. Backlash from the president himself can be worse. Many a lawmaker and judge has been on the receiving end of the type of haranguing tweet storm that characterizes petulant adolescence.

This reality of course is not entirely the fault of the G.O.P. I personally believe the current state of politics has more to do with monied special interests, gerrymandering, and steady erosion of voting rights. Politics, after all, like any system, is implemented by and subject to the ills of human beings. But that is for another time. My more immediate point is that the impending trial in the Senate simply will be meaningless in terms of justice and accountability.

From the standpoint of political survival, it is simply not in a Republican’s interest to vote against the president lest he or she be on the receiving end of vituperation from both the electorate and the White House. Indeed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham have both said they intend to not be impartial jurors, directly conflicting the oath they will take at the beginning of the trial:

Clinton's Senate Trial (Photo: Wikipedia)

I solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the constitution and laws, so help me God.

In what kind of fair trial do jurors preemptively announce their conclusion before having heard a word of testimony?

So what?

The impeachment trial will make a mockery of our justice system at the very highest level, which will reflect on the system as a whole. It will erode the idea of accountability, thereby undermining democracy itself. It will further entrench the current political divide whose hallmark is not just liberal versus conservative, but objective reality and intellectual honesty versus opinion and baseless conspiracy offered as fact, respectively.

What is sure to be a farce will further degrade our standing in the world. The last three years have been marked by a mixture of laughter and lament from friends from outside the United States. Those from places with a very real history of authoritarian rule and dysfunctional government are heartbroken that the last best hope has taken such a downward turn. And they laugh with a type of Schadenfreude that America is now following in their footsteps.

And this will only embolden the president heading into a re-election year. His acquittal – all but assured – will vindicate him and energize his core. (It is too narrow a group to be called a base.) He will have an impressive head of steam that can only be derailed by some kind of natural catastrophe that exposes his ineptitude and unfitness for the job. Think Hurricane Katrina only bigger.

Of course, I could be wrong. Senators might finally find their spines. Not enough to reach the threshold of 67 votes necessary to remove a sitting president, but sufficient to send a message that enough is enough. Sadly, just sending a message will not be enough. The same plurality that demanded accountability in the 2018 mid-terms will have to do what the Senate cannot and vote to remove an unfit president at the ballot box next November. As Winston Churchill observed, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.”