Social media and media sources have been beset with a new crisis ignited by President Donald Trump, which has prompted his Democratic opponents to initiate an impeachment inquiry a year before his first term comes to an end. The crisis involves a phone call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, in which Trump urged the latter to investigate presidential candidate Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s former vice president, and Trump’s strongest challenger in the upcoming 2020 presidential election.
How was it possible to leak data pertaining to the phone call? How did the White House react, and how significant are the escalated measures being taken by the House of Representatives which dominated by the Democratic Party? Will conviction of a president on impeachment charges really take place for the first time in the U.S. history? All of these questions are up for serious discussion in U.S. political circles these days.
The story begins with a telephone conversation between Trump and Volodymyr Zelenskiy last July 25, when Trump called on Zelenskiy to investigate his Democratic opponent Biden and his son, Hunter, who works in the gas and petroleum field. The Biden family is an investor in the gas sector in Ukraine. A CIA agent who was authorized to work at the White House leaked the phone conversation, discovering the conversation as part of a routine security procedure. The conversation caught his attention because it entailed a political breach, and he then reported the matter to the House Intelligence Committee on Aug. 12. The person’s identity remains unknown, but he has shared information about the matter with his lawyer, Andrew Bakaj.
On Sept. 25, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump as the House investigates whether or not Trump asked for Ukraine’s assistance in complicating matters for Biden. The allegations cover two issues: whether Trump abused the power of his office by seeking foreign assistance to influence the upcoming election. The second issue involves whether White House officials tried to cover up evidence to the phone call in addition to hiding and editing information mentioned during the call.
Trump reacted angrily, displaying discontent and mockery as he ridiculed the process undertaken by his Democratic opponents. He insulted them and denied any wrongdoing, but conceded that Zelenskiy was involved in phone conversation last July and added that the fuss over it is unjustified, as the allegations are false and he did not exert any pressure on the Ukrainian president. Trump stressed that the reason for creating this crisis at this particular time is to influence the upcoming elections, because the Democrats know they have little chance of winning in 2020.
Speaking to journalists, Trump said that he stands a strong chance in the upcoming elections, listing his accomplishments, including boosting the U.S. economy and strengthening the U.S. military around the world over the last three years. He said the Democrats are seeking to influence American voters and disrupt support for Trump. Biden, on the other hand, urged Trump to cooperate with the congressional investigation. In a statement as the crisis began, Biden said that if Trump continues to defy the law, Trump will leave the Congress with only one option, which is to carry out an impeachment trial.
Has a U.S. president ever been convicted on impeachment charges? The answer is no. The Constitution says a president may be impeached and removed on charges of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Has that ever happened in the course of U.S. history which extends back more than 200 years and covers 44 presidents? History shows that no U.S. president has ever been convicted on impeachment charges.
The first president to face impeachment was Andrew Johnson, the 17th president, although he was not convicted. Then Vice President Johnson became president in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson faced impeachment charges that centered on his firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in 1868 and ongoing disagreements he had with congressional Republicans over Civil War Reconstruction. An impeachment vote took place only 11 days after Johnson fired Stanton. Johnson avoided conviction by one Republican vote.
Bill Clinton, meanwhile, was charged with two articles of impeachment citing obstruction of justice and perjury. These charges followed his testimony that he had not had a relationship with Monica Lewinsky and that he urged her to do the same. The House voted 228 to 206 to impeach, but he was acquitted by the Senate in 1999 when it failed to reach the two-thirds vote needed for conviction.
Some American media reported that White House officials are worried about the possibility that Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani was involved in manipulating nonpublic Ukrainian policy to target Biden, which means that the crisis could escalate. A survey by the University of Monmouth earlier in September revealed that 35% of Americans are in favor of impeachment.
The impeachment procedures are complex, and this is standing in the way of proceeding with the process. To explain, the process with U.S. presidents in ordinary cases involves two stages. The first begins in the House of Representatives, and the second occurs in the Senate. There are five steps which follow, beginning with a resolution of impeachment that is introduced by the House, which requires a simple majority the House for approval. Democrats regard these steps as simple, as they hold the majority in the House and can easily accomplish the vote. The issue then moves to the Senate, whose 100 members function as a jury.
The chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presides over the trial. The voting then takes place in the Senate following hearing from witnesses and the president’s attorney. A two-thirds majority vogte by the Senate is needed to convict the president. Given the fact that the Senate is held by a Republican majority, holding 53 of the 100 seats, it would take 67 votes to convict the president on impeachment charges, which means that conviction would require 20 Republican votes, something that will be very hard to achieve.
The Democrats are playing the impeachment card as one way to pressure the president into withdrawing from the upcoming elections, which is similar to what occurred during the Watergate scandal where President Richard Nixon was threatened with impeachment and his party advised him to resign. Observers are perhaps expecting a similar scenario which will prompt Trump to be satisfied with a single term, but they also are ready for an additional surprise from Trump that could turn the tables.