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Teach your children well: Round One of the US presidential impeachment education

Teach your children well: Round One of the US presidential impeachment education
Illustrative image | Sources: Demonstrators holds posters in Los Angeles, California, USA, 10 November 2019. (PHOTO: EPA-EFE/ETIENNE LAURENT) / US President Donald J. Trump (Photo: EPA-EFE/JIM LO SCALZO) / United States Capitol (Photo: Wikimedia) EPA-EFE / JIM LO SCALZO

The first day of open public hearings inquiring into the impeachment of US President Donald Trump is completed, but many more days of potentially explosive testimony lie ahead. The outcome is uncertain.

Promptly at 10 in the morning on Wednesday 13 November, in the biggest, most imposing hearing room on Capitol Hill, California Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff gavelled to order one of the most extraordinary moments in US history and political life. (This is only the third time a formal inquiry leading directly towards the impeachment of a president has taken place.)

Bars in Washington DC opened early to give people a place to watch the proceedings with a stiff drink in hand, together with all the other news junkies. It has even drowned out talk of the city’s Major League Baseball team’s unlikely World Series victory, despite it being their first championship since 1924.

Televised globally, it was possible for anyone, pretty much anywhere, to watch. On display, two sombre career government employees catalogued the misjudgments, evasions, dissembling and worse that had been the result of President Donald Trump’s efforts to use the full panoply of American power, influence and strength to undermine the rule of law in both Ukraine and the US.

The specific allegation (originally given wings from a memorandum penned by a concerned government whistle-blower and then abetted by the release of an edited transcript of the phone call between the US and Ukrainian presidents and testimony released later) is that the US president tried to use all that power to lever the Ukrainian government into investigating former vice-president Joe Biden – a potential political opponent in the 2020 presidential election – and his son, in exchange for some desperately needed military aid and a meeting between the two presidents. (Yes, son Hunter Biden had been on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company, during the Obama administration, but no illegal acts were ever alleged, even if it had a kind of squidgy unsavouriness to it, pointing to the awkwardness of well-connected children riding the coattails of better-placed parents to money and jobs – oh, uh, like, say, the Trump children have done.)

This Trumpian manoeuvre vis-à-vis Ukraine has been conventionally labelled a demand for a “quid pro quo”, but let’s put the fancy, obscuring Latin aside. This is actually an extortionate tactic or effort at bribery, and it would be instantly recognisable to any garden variety mafiosa or wannabe Tony Soprano or Don Corleone.

This now-ongoing public inquiry, conducted by the House Intelligence Committee, is preparatory to an eventual vote on articles of impeachment by the House Judiciary Committee. And that, in turn, would set up a vote on impeachment by the entire House of Representatives. That vote, requiring a simple majority, is the step that would trigger the actual trial in the Senate – and a conviction there, but only if such a vote were to pass by a two-thirds majority.

On this, the first day of public testimony, the two witnesses, Bill Taylor and George Kent, were systematic and unflappable throughout the day’s interrogation. Taylor is the acting ambassador to Ukraine and was called out of a retirement job at the US Institute of Peace to take the top job in Kyiv after the Trump administration suddenly recalled the then-ambassador Marie Jovanovitch. That recall, apparently, had been at the insistence of the president’s personal lawyer and one-man demolition squad, Rudy Giuliani, and his miscellaneous goons. George Kent is a current deputy assistant secretary of state, supervising US foreign policy towards Ukraine and neighbouring states. Both officials have had spotless careers up till now.

While neither man admittedly had first-hand knowledge of Trump’s private thoughts and 3am fancies, one moment in Taylor’s testimony unexpectedly became big when he said he had learned one of his embassy staffers, David Holmes, had overheard a cellphone conversation at dinner with US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland (the political appointee who was one of the people to whom Trump had increasingly outsourced Ukrainian policy, in preference to actual official channels) in a Kyiv restaurant.

That call came one day after the crucial call between Trump and the new Ukrainian president. During that meal, Holmes was able to hear Trump’s voice via the cellphone conversation between the president and Sondland, as the president spoke about Ukrainian investigations into Joe Biden and his son, with Sondland explaining thereafter that Biden was the president’s big concern, not events in Kyiv. Quid pro-quo-ish, not?

Holmes will now be testifying in a closed-door session on Friday. Expect some very interesting leaks from that session at near-lightspeed.

Still, after just one day, this first session has already shown the inquiry to be a highly potent vehicle for public education, if citizens will pay attention. The writer’s wife, originally from South Africa, found herself fixated by the proceedings as they were being broadcast on television. For her, this constituted a profoundly important civic exercise in watching government at work, wrestling with a difficult task, and especially in seeing how career employees should comport themselves in fraught times. And all of this, of course, is now playing out in public – without censorship.

For this writer, this first day of hearings inevitably led to memories of the Senate committee back in 1973 that investigated events evolving out of the original Watergate break-in during the 1972 election. Those hearings ultimately led to Richard Nixon’s resignation a year later.

There were numerous consequential moments in those hearings, most notably when White House staffer Alexander Butterfield let slip the information during his testimony that there was a full-fledged taping system that recorded conversations in the Oval Office. It was the nearly full content of those tapes – including discussions about making payments to the Watergate burglars for their legal defence and efforts to hide yet other incriminating contents – that ultimately sank the Nixon presidency.

But Watergate came along before there was the internet, social media, or even cable or satellite news channels – as well as 500 more niche channels to distract people. The national attention was captured early and held fully by live broadcasts of those Senate hearings – and then through rebroadcasts later in the evening. Time will tell if these current hearings have the same impact as the 1973 hearings did.

While the smart money still says the Senate will most likely not vote in favour of a conviction, there remains the uncertainty of what else will come out from under other slimy rocks during these hearings. Public opinion is already divided, close to evenly, over an impeachment.

If future revelations are yet more troubling, or if the Democrats’ narrative begins to lock smartly in the public mind, some Republican senators – especially those up for re-election in 2020 – may begin to edge away from their unthinking support of the president. If that happens, the ultimate outcome of this process becomes that much more uncertain.

Of course, too, this impeachment process may also become fully entangled with the presidential election, making everything even more complex. This movie has barely begun. DM

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