The United States: A Government of Laws, or of Men?
The ability of Congress to hold the president to account is being sorely tested
US President Donald J. Trump takes questions from the press after the US-Japan Trade Agreement and US-Japan Digital Trade Agreement were signed in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 07 October 2019. EPA/Ron Sachs / POOL
It is striking that President Trump’s campaign to pressure Ukraine to find dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, his potential 2020 political opponent, began in earnest following the publication of the Mueller Report in March. The decision by former Special Counsel Robert Mueller not to apply an approach that could have potentially resulted in a judgment that the President committed crimes in seeking Russian interference in the 2016 election, combined with a Bill Clinton-era Department of Justice opinion that a sitting president cannot be indicted for crimes, seem to have convinced Mr Trump that he is untouchable.
Mr Trump has not only sought to justify the Ukraine shakedown but doubled down by publicly calling for China to investigate Biden for baseless allegations, a request already raised with President Xi in a June telephone call.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had been resisting impeachment investigations due to concerns over a negative impact on public opinion, concluded that the President, having crossed a Constitutional line, left her with no choice but to launch an impeachment enquiry. The Speaker would have been familiar with Founding Father John Adams’ belief that a republic is “a government of laws, not of men,” where checks and balances were intended to tame the wealthy new American aristocracy and prevent the abuse of power.
The Chair of the independent Federal Election Commission confirmed that it is illegal for anyone running for public office to solicit help from a foreign national. Even one Fox News senior judicial analyst, Andrew Napolitano, asserted that the summary of the July 25 call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky demonstrates “both criminal and impeachable behavior” by the President.
While Mr Trump is now publicly defending his campaign to pressure Ukraine to invent dirt on Biden in return for the US providing Javelin anti-tank missiles in the fight against Russian separatists, his efforts might have been successfully covered up were it not for one brave whistle-blower and a Trump-appointed Inspector General who found the complaint credible.
The gravity of the whistle-blower’s assertions is deeply shocking: “I have received information from multiple US Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 US election.” A second official with first-hand knowledge of the events is reported by his attorney to have come forward.
Last week’s House impeachment hearings produced corroborating texts, including from acting ambassador to Ukraine, William Taylor, a career diplomat, who expressed concerns regarding the apparent quid pro quo, “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH (White House) meeting are conditioned on investigations?” The US Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, another career diplomat, who had been pressing for investigations of real corruption, was fired by Mr Trump following dishonest accusations against her.
This week President Trump is defying the House subpoenas for documents, effectively undermining the separation of powers in the US. The House Chairman leading the impeachment enquiry, Adam Schiff said, “If a president can thwart congressional oversight that means any future president can be as corrupt as they choose and there’s no recourse.”
Why has Ukraine come to play such a critical role in American politics and the subject of Mr Trump’s calls with many foreign leaders? In a recent New Yorker magazine article, Jane Mayer documents how a conservative dark-money group, which falsely convinced many Americans in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had risked national security by facilitating the sale of American uranium to Russia in exchange for more than two million dollars in contribution to the Clinton Foundation, is now equally falsely claiming that Vice President Biden corruptly intervened on behalf of his son Hunter’s Ukrainian business interests.
This new conspiracy theory aggressively supported by President Trump includes the evidence-free assertion that Paul Manafort - Mr. Trump’s former campaign manager, who has been convicted in the United States of fraud and tax evasion in connection with his work as a consultant in Ukraine (and sentenced to four years in jail) - had been set up by supporters of Hillary Clinton. The White House disinformation campaign also advances the absurd notion that Ukraine masterminded 2016 presidential election interference, despite the fact that US intelligence found that Russia was to blame.
While the White House corruption assertions are untrue, a lobby group funded by major Trump supporters in the Mercer family succeeded in manipulating American media organizations to give publicity to the bogus “Clinton Cash” story in the 2016 election and is demonstrating similar success with the “Biden Corruption” nonsense. In a sad commentary on the failure of social media platforms like Facebook to police falsehoods, Mayer quotes Paul Barrett from NYU’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights that “There’s no effective mechanism in the country for weeding disinformation out.”
Even in a New York Times story this week on former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, the alleged source for baseless charges against the Bidens, the Times carelessly buries in its last paragraph Mr Lutsenko’s comment that he told Mr Trump’s personal lawyer Rudi Giuliani from the start that there was no basis for a case against Mr. Biden or his son.
Nevertheless, Speaker Pelosi must be somewhat reassured by new polls which have swung from being against impeachment proceedings a few weeks ago to being in favor as new details emerged. A Washington Post-Schar School poll found that by a margin of 58 to 38 percent Americans say the House was correct to undertake the enquiry. Since a July poll by The Post and ABC, support for the enquiry has risen by 25 points among Democrats, 21 points among Republicans and 20 points among independents. There is now a greater level of support for impeaching President Trump than at similar points in the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.
Many independent voters say they want Congress to improve their lives and not be distracted by partisan fights. Democratic leaders respond by saying they can walk and chew gum; they can hold the President accountable and they can pass laws to help ordinary Americans. The problem they say, is that while the House has passed numerous bills on such matters as lower prescription charges, infrastructure, net neutrality, climate change, equal pay for women and gun control, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has refused to take them up.
In the coming election, the Midwest will be the real battleground. In 2016, if Hillary Clinton had won 107,000 more votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania (0.09 percent of the 120 million votes cast) she would be President Clinton today. Notably, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, the core of the Democratic “Blue Wall,” had not voted for a Republican president since the 1980s.
A prominent Democratic politician in Pennsylvania thinks one third of the voters in his district who voted for Trump in 2016 could be persuaded to vote Democrat next year if convinced that a Democrat would fix the soaring cost of healthcare, student debt ($1.6 trillion) and retirement insecurity (less than half of American employees have a company pension fund).
This reasoning may explain why new polls at national and state level show Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has long championed greater equality for working Americans, narrowing the distance between her and Biden in the Democratic Primary race. Another white septuagenarian, Senator Bernie Sanders, who last week suffered a heart attack, is in third place.
Biden, who is widely liked for his character and decency, has struggled to convincingly defend himself against the baseless corruption charges by Mr Trump.
If Biden’s poll numbers decline, what could Democratic leaders do who favor a less leftwing candidate than Warren or Sanders? Some are wishing they could draft the Ohio populist Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown. Brown is 66 and won a third Senate term in 2018 with 53.4 percent of the vote in a state that Trump won in 2016. While Brown decided not to run for President last March, Mr Trump would have much less success in tarnishing him as either corrupt or socialist.
Meanwhile, between now and the Thanksgiving holiday, much will depend on Chairman Schiff, who characterized Mr Trump’s call with Mr Zelensky as a “classic organized crime shakedown.” Mr Schiff will need to similarly dramatize any new evidence regarding the Ukraine extortion and cover-up in order to break through the mountains of disinformation and lies that confront Americans every day. We will soon know if the Government of Laws will prevail in America.
Ted Smyth is a former Irish diplomat and public affairs consultant based in New York