What is impeachment, why has the Democratic establishment recently embraced it, and what will it take to actually get rid of Trump? Clare Lemlich probes the impeachment proceedings.
December’s impeachment proceedings continue to hold national headlines and have excited many who have resisted Trump since his bid for candidacy. There is no question that Trump has done almost innumerable illegal, unethical, and outrageous things while in office and deserves to be removed as swiftly as possible — the sooner the better. Although Trump has only been charged with two articles of impeachment, if you look at all the reasons impeachment proceedings have been carried out against an elected US official, Trump is guilty of nearly all of them (political bias; abuse of power; corruption; obstruction of justice; obstruction of Congress; improper gift acceptance; tax evasion; bribery; sexual assault, and more).
The calls for and excitement around impeachment are understandable. We would be overjoyed to see him booted out of office. We want this monster gone. The massive Women’s Marches in 2018 and 2019, the victorious teachers’ strikes in Trump country and beyond, the #MeToo movement against sexual violence, and the airport protests against the Muslim ban are all testament to the popular hatred and disgust at Trump and his policies. But unfortunately, impeachment as a mechanism is unlikely to unseat Trump and we should be critical of the Democrats’ recent and wholesale embrace of the process.
What is impeachment?
Since the 2016 election, some on the left have called for Trump’s impeachment — one popular slogan throughout the presidency has been “impeach the motherf***er.” Many woke up on December 19 after a full day of impeachment proceedings in the House and breathed a sigh of relief. Anyone could be forgiven for feeling that way, since impeachment proponents have generally treated the process as a silver bullet to remove Trump.
It is important to note that impeachment in the House does not mean removal from office — although it is the first step in a legal process that can result in removal. The House has initiated impeachment proceedings against federal officers over 60 times, about a third of which have resulted in formal impeachment. No president has ever been removed from office via impeachment: both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were aquitted when their cases went to the Senate and Richard Nixon resigned before the House could vote.
Trump’s impeachment in the House only means that allegations have been formally levelled against him in Congress. In order to be removed, the Senate must now try Trump — where he will likely be acquitted. Removal needs a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate, which is majority Republican. Assuming all Democrat and Independent senators vote for impeachment, in order to reach the removal threshold, at least 19 Republican senators would have to vote to kick out their party’s president. This seems doubtful, given that all House Republicans voted against impeachment, 37 Senate Republicans have already stated they won’t vote for removal, and only 15 had taken no position at the time of writing.
There has been some discussion of taking a secret ballot in the senate to allow Republicans to vote their conscience rather than along party lines, but that remains to be seen. The fact that secret ballots are up for discussion speaks to the abject cravenness of the Republicans. Plenty of them hate Trump and might vote to remove him if they didn’t have to be publicly accountable for it among their constituents. But Trump is still popular in some parts of the country and Republicans up for re-election want to ride his coattails. In any case, right now it’s unclear when a Senate trial will take place, with the Republicans opposed and the Democrats claiming the vote won’t be fair.
Democrats rush to defend Bidens
One would think an opportune moment to impeach Trump was when he openly defended the Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia after they murdered anti-fascist protestor Heather Heyer. Or perhaps over the continous revelations that he is a serial sex offender. Or maybe over the 400 allegations of sexual violence and 29 deaths in immigrant detention under his reign. The fact that none of these crimes pushed the Democrats to move for impeachment is significant.
While a minority of Democrats have supported impeachment since the early days of the Trump presidency, it is only recently that establishment Democrats like Nancy Pelosi joined the call. The House Speaker repeated many times over the last few years that she had no intention of moving forward with impeachment proceedings unless there was bipartisan support for it. December’s House impeachment vote was certainly split along partisan lines. Why did Pelosi change course?
During the summer a CIA whistleblower reported a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The transcript revealed how Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine and then pressured the country’s leader to dig up dirt on Trump’s potential election opponent Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who used to work for Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings. While there may well have been some conflict of interest between Joe Biden’s anti-corruption work in Ukraine and Hunter Biden’s questionable and lucrative employment there, so far there are no substantial allegations against either of them.
Biden is the Democratic establishment’s preferred presidential candidate and Trump’s threat to him was what finally triggered impeachment proceedings — almost a full three years, and countless other crimes, into the presidency.
Asking for foreign intervention to assist in an election is illegal and this crime forms the backbone of the impeachment allegations against Trump. It is no coincidence that the Democrats’ main opposition campaign against Trump has consistently centered on foreign threats and national security, particularly regarding Russia.
Trump’s phone call to Zelensky didn’t just threaten the Bidens, it undermined US interests in Ukraine. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, border states like Ukraine have found themselves caught between US/European Union imperialism and Russian imperialism. Putin would prefer Ukraine as a pro-Russian buffer state, while the US and EU want to see it fully integrated into their sphere. In 2014 this conflict reached a zenith with the Russian annexation of Crimea which then spilled over into an outright civil war in the eastern part of the country between pro-Russian separatists and the pro-West Ukrainian government.
These deepening imperial tensions in Ukraine and elsewhere are of great concern to the US ruling class. One of their main objections to Trump is his refusal to observe the old geopolitical order — whether it be his saber-rattling with North Korea, escalating trade wars with China, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, pulling troops out of Syria, or his relationship with Putin. When Trump withdrew military aid from Ukraine and made it contingent on investigating the Bidens, it deepened the existing rift between the US security state and the president.
Although the Democratic establishment has gone haywire over both Ukraine and the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election, the US itself has intervened in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000, making it the world’s leading electoral interferer. The Democrats’ focus on foreign meddling not so much because they believe in the principle of national sovereignty, democratic elections, or because Trump is an obvious crook. What they are most concerned about is Trump threatening to undo the post-Cold War world order.
A ‘strategic’ impeachment?
In addition to the Democrats’ underlying reasons for impeachment, the cynic might argue that impeachment is the perfect way for the Democratic establishment to be seen to be doing something, while actually doing nothing at all. They can whip up anti-Trump rhetoric around impeachment, all while knowing that removing Trump from office this way is quite unlikely. The cynic might read the whole debacle as a PR stunt for the Democrats in the lead-up to the 2020 elections.
More likely is that the Democrats have no particular strategy to defeat Trump or Trumpism. With some notable exceptions, most of them have spent his entire term probing Russia and treading water until they can win the White House again, restoring the world we lived in during the Obama years. But the Russia investigation delivered nearly nothing the Democrats could use against Trump, so the next best thing would be to catch him jockeying for more foreign meddling. Unfortunately, Trump and his base are homegrown problems. The conditions for Trump to win were created under the Democrats, and that is a much harder problem to deal with than external meddling.
No substitute for struggle
Putting aside the aims and strategies of the Democratic establishment, how should the rest of us relate to impeachment? In December Jacobin ran dueling essays for and against impeachment, each raising important points. Max B. Sawicky argues a left case in favor of impeachment, citing Trump’s many crimes, the principle of democracy, and the need for socialists to inject wider left demands into the proceedings. His sparring partner Doug Henwood argues impeachment is a theatrical and largely pointless distraction from the battle that could actually remove Trump from office: the 2020 presidential election.
Sawicky is right in a sense: socialists should use every possible opportunity to fight Trump. The key question for us is always: what will take our collective struggle forward? Sawicky argues that impeachment over Ukraine isn’t our ideal terrain, but we should use it to our advantage without fretting over the impeachment trigger so much. According to Sawicky, whether we like it or not, impeachment is what’s grabbing people’s attention. But this isn’t exactly the case. If there were grassroots demonstrations in favor of impeachment, then the picture might be different. But as it stands, protests in favor of impeachment have been quite small. There may be general hatred of Trump and general support for his removal from office, but impeachment itself is not galvanizing people and bringing them into the streets like the inauguration, Women’s Marches, or Muslim ban. In fact, a Gallup poll shows popular support for impeachment has actually declined slightly the longer the process has gone on.
Henwood raises important criticisms like the Democratic establishment’s cynicism and theatrics. He also mentions that the impeachment proceedings might work in Trump’s favor, which is indeed possible. The same Gallup poll shows Trump’s approval ratings have risen a little over the course of the proceedings. Trump will likely survive the Senate trial, claim full exoneration, cry that he is beleaguered by a mob of partisan Democrats who want to throw his 2016 democratic mandate out the window, and rally his base, again, by telling them he is a political outsider just like them. Henwood also points out that in the unlikely case of impeachment leading to removal, we would end up with a Pence presidency. This in itself is not an argument against getting rid of Trump. But if he were to be removed, what groundwork has been laid to take on President Pence? Or President Biden, or President Warren — or even President Sanders? There is little in the impeachment process that is mobilizing ordinary people.
The reasoning behind public support for Trump’s impeachment and removal is entirely legitimate and justifiable. No regular person cares exclusively about the Trump-Zelensky-Biden phone call trigger and anyone that supports impeachment will list all Trump’s other — significantly more substantial — crimes, when asked. But impeachment, as it stands, is not capable of removing Trump from office. Even if it was possible today, impeachment relies on us hoping that the Democrats can maneuver a legalistic fix at the top of society over one of Trump’s least egregious crimes.
This is the key limitation of the impeachment process: there is no struggle led from the grassroots that is building consciousness and confidence among working people for anything after November 2020. Sometimes it is difficult to imagine politics beyond the election cycle and outside the narrow limits of American democracy. For all the horrors of the Trump presidency, we have also seen incredible resistance, including the rise of an inspiring wave of teachers’ strikes and the largest demonstrations in US history. This is the kind of struggle that brings ordinary people into politics and gives us a taste of our true power. It prepares us to take on whoever is sitting in the White House come November. We need mass movements for universal healthcare, against the detention camps, for real action on catastrophic climate change, and more. That is the only thing that can truly defeat Trump and Trumpism, and it’s the place socialists and all leftists should put our energy in the coming months.