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Impeachment: A View from Washington

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The decision to impeach a President of the United States is a rare event. Donald Trump is only the third holder of the America's highest office ever to be subjected to the process. Kieran Smith, a third year History and Politics student, was an intern in Washington at the time of the proceedings and shares his experience.

‘Acquitted’ was the word printed on every major front page on the morning of Thursday 6 February 2020, of course in reference to the conclusion of one of the most divisive episodes in American history, the impeachment of the 45th President of the United States.

Donald J. Trump was only the third holder of America’s highest office to be the subject of such monumental proceedings, and I, being an intern on Capitol Hill at the time, was there to witness it.

Those with even the most basic knowledge of American politics proudly declared prior to the trial that ‘there is no chance Trump will be convicted with a Republican majority in the Senate’. However, the question should be asked, why would that be the case? Why, if he has committed a crime, would his own party not convict him for the good of the nation? After all, many of them seemingly never wanted him in the first place…

Sadly, the answer is somewhat depressing.

What the British media perhaps does not quite grasp and adequately cover about the United States, is just quite how popular Donald Trump is within the base of the Republican party (I.e. those who are registered party members). He sits comfortably in the mid-90% range of approval, an unprecedented level for any President, and even more astoundingly, for a man as divisive as him.

When Trump was rising to prominence, he was vilified and even ridiculed by many Republicans who saw him as a populist, who would inevitably fade in favour of a true ‘conservative’ nominee. Yet, the opposite has occurred, with his popularity among his own party rocketing, and those who once laughed, sitting meekly behind the man they asserted could never win.

The United States Senate is filled with just this type of person, the ‘true conservative’, the ‘establishment Republican’, in other words, those who once hated Trump, but now support him. Sadly, the reason behind this change is simply political. The United States Senate is a body of 100, two per State, with 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats currently. One-third of the body is elected every two years, to serve six-year terms, meaning that 2020 will see the election of 33 Senators.

Crucially, 23 of those on the ballot this November are Republicans, and this means trouble. Many of these 23 openly spoke against Trump back in 2016, such as Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Susan Collins (R-ME) yet have subsequently changed tone and embraced the President’s agenda. Ultimately, the reason being that they stood no chance of re-election if they did not.

Think about it, if you are Cory Gardner, a Republican in Colorado, a state that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, you are already worried about your re-election chances. Add into this, the chance that your own registered party voters might turn against you, you are almost certainly condemned to defeat.

For Gardner, he faced the dilemma, vote for further witnesses and potentially for conviction of the President, and face the wrath of his own party base, or vote against what you know is the morally right thing to do, in an effort to get re-elected. This dilemma faced Republican Senators across the United States, to be a ‘Profile in Courage’ as John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning work described, or to vote to try and save your political career.

From within the halls of power on Capitol Hill, this was increasingly obvious, as the views of Americans came flooding in via phone lines, emails and social media. One by one, Republican ‘swing-votes’ announced they would be voting against witnesses, and then conviction of the President, ostensibly for a variety of reasons such as ‘lack of evidence’, or even ‘because conviction would be worse for the country than acquittal’. However, these were secondary to the true electoral politics that as in most cases, dictates how votes are decided in DC.

This may come as no surprise to those in the U.K. who are used to a system of party loyalty, but for a country founded famously on principles such as ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’, it is a sad state of affairs, especially when the founding fathers who authored the constitution, explicitly spoke against the dangers of political parties.

Furthermore, prior to the 17th Amendment in 1913, the United States Senate was a non-elected body, for the exact purpose of ensuring its members were not at the whim of a divided and partisan electorate. In short, it was a body designed to provide non-partisan justice and oversight, even if that meant voting for things that although maybe unpopular, would later be recognised as the correct thing to do.

The impeachment proceeding of Donald J. Trump fits exactly into this category.

Around 51% of Americans supported conviction of the President, but over 75% of them supported a full trial with witnesses and documents, yet somehow, they were denied both. It is an immense shame that because of electoral politics, a significant proportion of Republican Senators (probably) voted against their best judgement on this issue, putting party over country and their own political survival over American democracy.

The results of this are as of now, inconclusive, but in November it will be interesting to see whether this electoral gamble by those such as Collins, Gardner and Graham pays off with victory. Regardless, whatever their results, the question should be asked from an ideological and constitutional standpoint, ‘was it worth it?’

For me, the answer will always be no, and in their hearts, I wonder whether they would potentially agree with me.

As a new era dawns in Washington, it cannot be denied that America is more polarised than ever. Electoral politics and party loyalties have become all-encompassing in a country where that was never, ever, supposed to be allowed to happen.

 

Published:

26 February 2020

About:

Kieran SmithKieran Smith is a third-year History and Politics student, currently undertaking a year abroad in the United States. Kieran spent his first semester studying at the University of South Carolina, through whom he was successful in being accepted onto an internship program allowing him to complete his studies by working in Washington, DC. He will return to Warwick for his final year upon the completion of his internship, with the aim of returning to the United States after graduation.

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