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ANALYSIS

Trump impeachment inquiry: We are now entering The Twilight Zone

US President Donald Trump.(Photo: EPA-EFE / Michael Reynolds)

The impeachment inquiry into the conduct of Donald Trump as president has now come to pass. And it is all the fault of a telephone conversation with the new Ukranian president. Events are moving quickly and will be changing almost every day. We shall try to stay ahead of things for you.

Back when the world was young”, in the way Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories begin, I can remember how it was in 1973; waking up every morning to bring in the Washington Post that had just been thrown against our front door with that decisive, distinctive thud. This was, of course, eons before social media, before the internet, even before email, cellphones and text messages.

Washington had two newspapers — The Post and The Star — plus the New York Times reaching out to Washington from Manhattan, three television networks, a couple of weekly news magazines, and two all-news radio stations. Pretty much everything else was rumours gleaned from chatter around the water cooler, or perhaps from around the dinner table or backyard barbecue with friends, or barbershop and beauty parlour conversations.

That was the communications world when the Watergate scandal broke upon the nation’s consciousness. Eventually, the live, televised hearings conducted by the Senate’s special committee on this question became must-watch television, especially under the leadership of its chair, North Carolina Democratic senator, Sam Ervin. Ervin delighted viewers with his habitual refrain, “I’m just an old country lawyer” — just before he inserted another razor-sharp shiv into an unwary witness, skewering him with yet another self-incriminating question. By the end of the unwinding of it all, Richard Nixon had resigned his office, just ahead of a full House of Representatives vote on articles of impeachment, drawn up by its judiciary committee.

Recollecting the congressional inquiries and all that had come with them, it was almost as if real life began to mimic the closing scenes of the film (or, perhaps it was the other way round?), All the President’s Men. On screen, the wire service copy and the front pages of newspapers with their astonishing headlines flicked past one after the other until reaching the finale: “Nixon Resigns”. In the back of a closet, I still have a copy of that edition of The Washington Post.

By the time of the impeachment hearings, the House of Representatives vote of impeachment, and then the Senate trial of Bill Clinton in 1998, we were able to follow much of it while living in Japan, watching satellite, all-news television and the early years of internet coverage of public events.

Despite that coverage, we never really made much sense of the so-called Whitewater scandal, especially since it was never clear who the victims were. Whitewater had actually been the precursor to the eventual, actual articles of impeachment that had zeroed in on Clinton’s dalliance with a White House intern and the resulting charge he had lied to Congress about it all. That kind of saga was, of course, very clear, since something like that has been the raw material for a thousand Washington novels, films, and television dramas.

Interestingly, Clinton’s public approval actually rose once his Senate trial ended without a conviction, perhaps due to a sense that the Republican Congress had overreached in its attacks on the president. This precise precedent is being noted by today’s commentators as a potential flashing warning light for the current circumstances of a Trump impeachment, now that the House of Representatives has embarked on the path to this constitutionally provided remedy for presidential misbehaviour.

The specific wording of Section 4, Article Two of the US Constitution reads:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

It was not designed to be used frequently, but it was put there to keep presidents in check from operating well beyond the bounds of law. Readers may wish to keep this constitutional phrase handy as we shall undoubtedly be referring to it frequently over the next several months.

And so now, here we are again, facing our third impeachment experience, having missed Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and trial a century-and-a-half ago for violating the Tenure in Office Act. That had been designed to prevent him from firing any of the cabinet members he had inherited from Abraham Lincoln, so as to preserve the progress of “The Reconstruction” of the defeated South after the American Civil War.

Johnson, as a politician from Tennessee, was believed by many Republicans to harbour some not-so-secret sympathies for policies that would have largely returned the South to its pre-war circumstances — minus the actual reimposition of slavery.

But back to our current impeachment. After even the idea of an impeachment spluttering along with less-than-fulsome support by the Democratic caucus, even after the Trump administration’s routine, racialised frat boy bad behaviour, assaults on international friends and allies, and riding roughshod over numerous Obama-era initiatives and laws passed during his predecessor’s administration, by Friday, 26 September, circumstances had shifted dramatically.

Suddenly, after months of debate about whether or not an impeachment of President Trump was even conceivable, there was Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announcing the House would now proceed with an impeachment inquiry. And this would not drag on interminably into the distant future.

The end of the year was being mentioned; by Thanksgiving at the end of November was even being mentioned. And the members of key House committees were now being told to be prepared to return to Washington in the middle of their scheduled constituency time — presumably to be available to frame articles of impeachment, to settle on a witness and subpoena list (subpoenas for State Department officials have already been issued), and to sort out a roadmap for the strategy of bringing those putative articles of impeachment to a vote.

And to confront the real possibility that while the House would vote for these articles, gaining a conviction in a Republican-dominated Senate is a nearly impossible-to-surmount hill — least at present.

So what made all the difference? It was word that a whistle-blower — working in or close to the White House on secondment from the intelligence establishment — had filed a memorandum calling to the attention of his/her superiors a very problematic phone conversation between the presidents of the US and Ukraine.

To the whistle-blower, this conversation had almost seemed like an out-take from The Godfather or The Sopranos in which the US president was asking his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on potential 2020 election Trump opponent Joe Biden as the (not quite explicitly stated) quid pro quo for releasing already appropriated, desperately needed military assistance to Ukraine to confront Russian-sponsored separatists in eastern Ukraine. (Mafia dons, when they make one of their threats of mayhem, don’t usually say the threat explicitly. Rather, after the favour is mentioned, comes the heavily pregnant question, “So, how’s your family? Everybody still healthy?”)

As the week went on, the memo from the anonymous whistle-blower and a summary transcript memorandum of the actual conversation were reluctantly released (apparently from the mistaken view within the Trump White House that these documents would stem the tide of criticism), but instead giving real heft to the interpretation that Trump was dangling aid in return for Joe Biden and his son’s heads on a plate. Trump and his accomplices, such as an increasingly wild attack dog in the person of Rudi Giuliani, have been insisting the Bidens had been squeezing ill-gotten money out of Ukraine and China, and calling that into question was a legitimate expression of presidential interest. Right.

Amid all of this, the acting director of national intelligence, Joseph Maguire, testified to Congress that the whistle-blower had acted correctly. However, Justice Department and White House attorneys he approached had determined that the whistle-blower memorandum did not need to be handed to Congress, in accord with law, because it did not represent a direct, pressing matter of national security.

Meanwhile, this summary transcript (and, apparently, the full transcript) had been placed in a super-secret computer system, along with similar documents deriving from Trump conversations with Vladimir Putin and Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, all in an effort to keep this material out of the hands of the usual circle of security, foreign policy and defence officials.

Now, why would such a thing happen? Well, obviously, it is not because the president believed what he said or agreed to was purely in the national interest as most people might see it. We’ll park that point here right now until pressure on the Trump administration forces some of this material out into the open as well and we can judge for ourselves.

In thinking about this, I turned to a long-time foreign service officer with substantial experience in the national security community for some larger context. This individual wrote to say:

I recognise in the quality and thoroughness of the whistle-blower’s complaint, a collaborative professional document compiled from an interagency perspective.

I cannot know, but I can speculate that the national security council working level group on Ukraine would be comprised of the individuals from various agencies of government most alarmed by the presidential hold on security assistance to Ukraine. They would know that the suspension of aid was not ‘processed’ in normal channels and was probably a personal presidential decision. They would also consider the matter urgent because the funds would need to be expended by the end of the fiscal year or be lost to the policy purpose for which they were appropriated.

I can imagine that they pooled their knowledge of the alarming circumstances and the one most likely to be protected by his agency went forward as the whistle-blower. Our democracy has been given a gift from professionals who care about our national security. They also care about our democracy and followed lawful procedures to alert the constitutionally responsible parties to allow them to do their duty. I pray that the political class does not waste the precious opportunity.”

And another officer, a retired ambassador, added:

There are many things that are deeply disturbing about the memo of President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky. But our president’s vicious attack on an outstanding US career diplomat [Ambassador Marie Yavanovitch] in a conversation with a foreign leader is outrageous.

Ambassador Marie Yavanovitch was reportedly forced by the Trump Administration to leave Ukraine months early when she refused demands to help Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani find dirt on the Bidens. In his conversation with Zelensky, Mr Trump says nothing about Ukraine engaging with the US embassy on bilateral issues including vital US security assistance to counter Russian aggression.

Rather, when Zelensky requests security co-operation, Trump asks for a ‘favor’. He says what is expected from Ukraine’s president is that he work with Giuliani and Attorney General Barr to investigate political rival Joe Biden and exonerate Russia from interference in the 2016 US elections. Both clearly would support Trump’s re-election campaign. As I read it, this is a subversion of traditional American diplomacy, which is replaced with political demands for partisan electoral support from a foreign government. Every aspect of such an abuse of power must be investigated.”

People like these two individuals are not prone to wild charges and arm-waving on national and international television like a certain freewheeling personal attorney for the president. They choose their words carefully, and with full regard for their impact. And, in fact, by the end of the week, some 300 other retired or former senior officials from both parties and several past administrations had also voiced their deep concerns over these actions by the Trump administration.

As if to underscore the deeply personal nature of the way this president carries out retribution, word came out by week’s end that his State Department was now informing former officials that emails they may have sent to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email address are now being traced and re-evaluated, ex post facto. The point is to see if they could now be retroactively classified — and that such reclassifications might conceivably have serious implications on their future government employment and security clearances.

Taken together, all of these events and ongoing revelations make it certain that the coming months — even as the primaries and caucuses for Democrats for the general election are also coming quickly — will be deeply divisive and filled with conflict. As a consequence, this virtually guarantees Americans are about to witness a bitterly fought battle for the soul of the nation’s political life.

Just as I was finishing up this essay, I came across something written some two-and-a-half years ago, the text of what Rod Serling might well have said, if Donald Trump’s life had been the focus of an episode of the television series, The Twilight Zone:

Enter Donald J Trump, two-bit conman, television huckster, a denizen of gaudy casinos and smoke-filled back-rooms, who conned himself into the biggest job of all. He is our guide to a new realm you won’t find on any map; a world of his own creation, where words like ‘truth’ and ‘lie’ no longer have meaning, where man’s darkest instincts are given license, and where things like human decency and tolerance are relics of a bygone day. Case in point: Mr Donald Trump, a man with one foot in his mouth and the other in The Twilight Zone.”

Damn, I wish I had written that! DM

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