As impeachment inquiries unfold, a nagging question plagues American democracy with renewed urgency: Can Trump in fact be removed from office, either electorally or procedurally?
Lest anyone dismiss such apprehensions as an indulgence in left paranoia, consider this. In the 2016 presidential debate, Trump refused to say whether he would accept defeat. “I’ll keep you in suspense, “ he declared and stoked anticipatory fears in his supporters that the election could be “rigged.”
Along these lines, he has subsequently and routinely made the fact-free assertion that his defeat in the popular vote was the product of “millions of millions” of illegal ballots. His imprisoned former lawyer Michael Cohen said: “I fear that if he loses in 2020, that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” The ever-deliberate Nancy Pelosi has even warned her party to prepare for the possibility that Trump contests the 2020 results.
In May — at a rally in Pennsylvania — he mused, “We ran one time and we’re 1-and-0. But it was for the big one. Now we’re going to have a second time. And we’re going to have another one. And then we’ll drive them crazy.
“And maybe if we really like it a lot — and if things keep going like they’re going — we’ll go and we’ll do what we have to do. We’ll do a three and a four and a five.”
Trump has also promoted the tweet of one of his prominent evangelical endorsers, Jerry Falwell, Jr, who suggested that he should get two extra years tacked on to his presidency “as pay back for the time stolen by this corrupt failed coup, “ referring to the Mueller investigation.
In March of last year, Trump praised the Chinese Communists for abolishing presidential term limits and wondered, in evident indifference to the 22nd Amendment, why he couldn’t be in office for 16 years. He alluded to Franklin Roosevelt who died in his fourth term.
But Trump’s power-grab envy is not merely ego-driven. True, he has no grand vision, nor the ambition to remake society that other authoritarians have had. But the personal and financial stakes for Trump in losing or being removed from office are inestimable.
If he loses the election, he also loses his presidential immunity from criminal prosecution. And several presidential contenders have suggested that their justice departments would be justified in pressing charges against Trump for obstructing justice in the Mueller investigation, for campaign finance abuses, and for violations of the emoluments clause.
Context is multidimensional, and the political narrative hardly acquits the Democrats. Even former CIA official Robert Baer — no friend of Trump — opined on CNN that the impeachment inquiry in the wake of the Ukraine revelations has the odour of a “palace coup” — that is, blowback from within a significant segment of institutional power including the intelligence community and the upper echelons of the Democratic Party’s pro-business establishment, who took particular umbrage at the attack on their standard-bearer, Joe Biden.
The appearance of a second whistle-blower, this time with alleged first hand knowledge will prove, no doubt, even more incriminatory. But it is again telling, if not damning, that the ever-cautious Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats had their hands forced by the most reactionary sectors of the state bureaucracy, guarding their power against the freewheeling ways of this political mountebank, before tip-toeing down the impeachment road.
Every year of Trump’s presidency seems to be a growing affront to human decency as much as to democracy. But what is the Democratic Party’s message? Locking migrant children in cages, separated from their parents, without toilets, beds or medical attention, where some died and others were simply lost track of, was not sufficient for impeachment. But this is. Puerto Rico, ravished by Hurricane Maria, deprived of adequate federal funds and left to fend for itself is not sufficient grounds for impeachment. But this is.
The thing is, as numerous observers have pointed out, Pelosi’s position prior to the Ukraine scandal — that “the public isn’t there” — was a public confession. She was conveying the message that the Democrats are less interested in discharging their constitutional responsibilities against criminal behaviour, of making an example of Trump so that no future president would ever dare behave in that fashion again, than they are in seeking partisan advantage.
And if that advantage were absent — if there were no upside at the other end — the Democrats couldn’t be bothered.
Until the intelligence agencies left them little wiggle room.
Having fretted publicly that Trump is a clear and present danger to American democracy, it is even more remarkable that the Democratic Party establishment would now, and at this late date, find themselves circling their wagons around their most compromised candidate.
But do they really believe Biden will emerge unscathed? Biden is certainly innocent of the “crime” which Trump and his lawyer Rudolph Guiliani were hoping to foist on him.
And the stench of withholding anti-tank missiles needed for Ukrainian defence against the Russians in exchange for actionable opposition research is overpowering.
Still, Biden and his son remain, like the Trump children, dramatic portraits of the elite sleaze confection that floats like an oil slick over American democracy. It is the raw sewage from which conspiracy theories are readily fashioned.
It is a reasonable hypothesis that the younger Biden was elevated to the board of Burisima Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas company, for which he had no expertise, solely to influence his then vice-president father. Prior to that, Hunter Biden, who had no experience in China and little in private equity, sat on the board of BHR Partners, a private equity firm managing a multi-billion dollar fund tasked by the Chinese government with acquiring businesses outside of China.
When Burisima Holdings faced a money laundering investigation, it sought cover by assembling a “high profile” international board, which recruited from BHR Partners. This is how it saddled itself with Hunter Biden.
In both instances, the younger Biden owed his “success” climbing the global corporate ladder less to his business acumen than to his potential for leveraging political influence. Such are the everyday workings of American capitalism. They are hardwired to activate the conspiracy pinball machine light and sound show full force.
Joe Biden, then Obama’s Vice-President, did however encourage the government of Ukraine to fire the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was widely condemned for blocking corruption investigations, which Ukraine did. So, contra Trump and Guiliani, Biden’s actions increased the chances that the Ukrainian government would sanction Burisima Holdings. And there is no evidence of Hunter having misappropriating BHR funds.
Ultimately, the Senate will not convict. So the likely outcome most favourable to the Democrats, itself a reach, is a Congressional censure of Trump.
Then on to the elections. And that is where it gets knotty.
I am not arguing that Trump will call out right wing militias, seize power through an armed power grab, and cancel elections, though that sort of speculation gets some surprising playtime on the far left.
But a close election with Biden as standard-bearer is not outside the realm of reality. A narrow loss may well trigger Trump and the massive Republican spin machine, its activist base and carefully curated judicial support system to claim rampant “electoral fraud.”
Assuming — and this is no leap — that prominent Republicans don’t break rank and talk Trump down, a massive recount will be demanded that will paralyse the system for months. The Republicans will browbeat the public, claiming Democratic Party pushback demonstrates their fear of a thorough investigation into the fairness of the election and accuse the Democrats of stooping to “anything,” having failed at impeachment, to remove Trump from office.
Nothing in the realm of rabble-rousing imagination will be off limits. Were the votes of “illegal immigrants” counted? Were the polling booths open too late in Democratic leaning districts, permitting votes to be accumulated illegally beyond the deadline?
Did vote counters fail to register late-filed absentee ballots? And if they were military ballots, doesn’t that confirm the “suspicion” that Democrats, who disrespect those who “defend our freedoms,” also lack any commitment to democratic freedoms writ large? Might not states controlled by Republican administrations select so-called “faithless” Electoral College electors who are instructed to vote their “consciences” as a needed corrective to the tainted, untrustworthy Democratic Party “rigged” results?
And then there’s the 2000 Gore v Bush precedent, when the Supreme Court arbitrarily stopped the recount to “spare” the country from further “chaos”.
The labour movement and allied social movements need to ask what their next step will be if Trump refuses to leave.
Clearly the Democrats, left to their own devices, have no clue.