Trump’s acquittal in the impeachment trial opens windows

The first week of February has seen Presi­dent Donald Trump- US’s 45th President- being acquitted by the United States Senate in his impeachment trial. This ended a US Congressional bid to remove him from the office of Presidency. It also bitterly divided the US. The trial lasted barely two weeks.Trump has been cleared and 

he can now concentrate on running for re-election.

The international media, which had been following proceedings with great interest, noted that the Senate, run by the President's fellow Republicans, voted to acquit him 52-48 on charges of abuse of power and 53-47 on obstruction of Congress. It may be recalled that the Democratic-led House of Representatives had approved the articles of impeachment on 18 December. A two-thirds majority vote was needed to remove Mr Trump, which was always going to be quite unlikely in a 100-seat Chamber controlled by his Republican Party.

Democrats charged Mr Trump in December with pressuring the Ukraine Administration to smear a potential White House rival from the Democrat Party- J. Biden. Trump’s acquittal means that he will become the first impeached president to seek re-election. One needs to understand here that if the Senate proceedings had led to conviction on either charge, Trump would have had to turn over his office to Vice-President Mike Pence. Trump, who is seeking a second four-year term in the 3 November election, had always denied wrongdoing and at one point had stated that "this impeachment hoax will go down as the worst miscalculation in American political history."

It may be mentioned here that Mitt Romney of Utah was the only Republican Senator to cross the aisle and convict Mr Trump, on the first charge of abuse of power. He did this out of his belief that Trump was 'guilty of an appalling abuse of public trust'. After his acquittal, Trump has responded to Romney’s action with a very strong tweet. He has berated Romney as a failed Presidential candidate and pointed out that Romney should have “devoted the same energy and anger to defeating a faltering Barack Obama as he sanctimoniously does to me, he could have then won the election”. Despite Democratic hopes, two other moderate Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, did not join Mr Romney in voting to convict the President. Apparently, some Republican Senators had criticized Mr Trump's behaviour in recent days during discussions, but, at the same time had indicated that it did not rise to the level of impeachment. The electronic media analysts have also pointed out that three centrist Democratic Senators- Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Doug Jones of Alabama, who Republicans had hoped would side with them instead voted to convict Mr Trump.

The impeachment proceedings had been initiated by the Democrats based on charges that focused on President Trump's request that the Ukraine government announce a corruption investigation into Joe Biden, a Democratic White House candidate, and his son Hunter Biden. Mr Trump had argued that the younger Biden had improperly held a Board position with a Ukrainian natural gas firm while his father was US Vice-president and in charge of American-Ukrainian relations. Apparently, Trump had made a phone call on 25 July, 2019 in which he had asked Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky to "do us a favor". Democrats also accused Mr Trump of abusing his power by withholding US Dollar 391 million in security aid to Ukraine by indirect pressure that such aid would be made available to Ukraine if it’s President dug up dirt on the Bidens. Those leading the Democrat effort also charged Trump with obstruction of Congress after the White House blocked testimony and documents sought by the House impeachment investigators.

United States has witnessed two previous impeachment attempts against sitting Presidents- Bill Clinton in 1999 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. President Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.

There has been an interesting mix in terms of reaction within the US political framework. Democrats, by and large have expressed concern that this acquittal would further embolden a President whom they characterize as a demagogue. House of Represen­tatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said that Mr Trump remains "an ongoing threat to American democracy" and that Senate Republicans had, through their vote, "normalized lawlessness". The Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, in his response to the exoneration has stated that there will always be "a giant asterisk next to the President's acquittal". 

Republican Senators like- Lamar Alexander, Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham- on the other hand have been critical of the impeachment effort and termed it as "a colossal political mistake".

It needs to be also noted that there was another important factor that greatly helped Trump. Republicans in the Senate have a majority of 53 to 47, meaning they control the chamber and were able to direct the terms of the trial. That small majority mattered. During the trial, Senators had to vote on whether to admit witnesses, and the majority opted not to. Analysts have pointed out that had only four Republicans gone the other way, witnesses may have been allowed - not least former National Security Adviser John Bolton, whose evidence may well have undermined Mr Trump's case. In the end, all Republicans but Mr Romney voted with their Party, no witnesses were called and the trial finished after only 11 days.

This evolving situation has led to Mr. Trump’s personal approval rating with American voters hitting a personal best of 49% by the end of the first week of February- a significant pointer compared to the less than successful Democrat show put up in Iowa. A Gallup poll has also indicated that 94% more Republicans are now backing their President. Gallup has also reported that 89% of Republicans approved of Mr Trump during his third year in office. This has made him the second most popular President of all time among his own Party members.  The Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research have however conveyed a different story. They have claimed that the President's growing popularity does not mean that his supporters believe that he is blameless with regard to the impeachment saga. According to them, only 54% of Republicans believe he had done nothing wrong. Nevertheless, despite differences, one thing is clear. Both polls are sending their own signals during a election year which the Democrats cannot any longer take for granted.

Strategic analysts are drawing attention to the changing dynamics in view of the coming national elections towards the beginning of November, 2020. This election will be voting on membership of the entire House of Representatives, more than a third of the Senate also on who is going to be the next President.

Republican political strategists associated with the future electoral process have already started to describe the failed impeachment subject-matter impeachment as just another example of a Washington establishment that has been out to get the President - and, through connectivity, those who have supported him - from the beginning. Their campaign manager Brad Parscale has in this context stated that - the accusation by House Democrats and subsequent exoneration by Senate Republi­cans is music to Republican ears.

One aspect of this unfolding drama has generally been agreed to by all sides in Europe. Zurcher has pointed out that there is general consensus that this impeachment trial may have rolled on to its foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, it is also being hinted that the end of one chapter will not close the door on the Ukraine-related headaches of Trump. This point of view is being nurtured by many on the basis of one factor. They are saying that even if the former National Security Advisor John Bolton could not be asked to testify before the Senate, his account of how the President pressured Ukraine to open up Biden investigations is just starting to come out. It could be fully revealed if his upcoming memoir is published or if he chooses to talk publicly. Some House Democrats are also suggesting they could still try to call him as a witness. Such an effort on the part of the Democrats would definitely trigger the kind of bitter court fight that has been bypassed the first time around. The House of Representatives could also decide to bring in others to testify. This might include former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly, who has recently made statements supporting Bolton's assertions. In fact, according to columnist Jonathan Alter, witnesses after the trial concludes might end up being more helpful to Democrats. Some have termed such a development as just wishful thinking on the part of the Democrats.

The Democrats after their Iowa episode know that the circumstances are not as simple as they had thought three months ago. They realize that the Democratic nomination contest will be closer as the USA moves towards autumn. The restive Democrats got the impeachment they wanted - if not the result they hoped for. So might be the general election. Consequently, even a shadow of doubt could tilt the scales. The just concluded impeachment proceedings might instead have enhanced Republican Party prospects.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information 

and good governance