Commentary: Impeach Trump? It’s about math, party and the public interest
US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's and the senior democrats' calculation may say that impeachment is not a good option for now, but that does not mean it's off the table, says Steven R Okun.
SINGAPORE: During a talk I gave last month to the American community in Singapore, I suggested people think about the current US political landscape by focusing on “Three Eyes” - Immigration, Investigations, and Impeachment.
The Wall has been funded by executive action - at least for now.
Subpoenas are out to more than 80 people affiliated with President Trump. Impeachment is in the media.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and President Trump’s equal from a US Constitutional perspective, recently stated, “I’m not for impeachment”. Why say this now?
In taking impeachment off the table for the time being (and by time being, it could be two weeks or two years; more likely the latter rather than the former), she was answering in the negative two questions for the House Democrats she leads: First, is it in the Democratic Party’s interest to impeach President Trump? Second, is it in the country’s interest to do so?
Speaker Pelosi reads the political situation as not being the right time for her party or the country to consider impeachment.
While the US House of Representatives may not formally commence impeachment proceedings against the President, the precursors to impeachment will still dominate US politics for the next two years.
This is a risk businesses and governments must take into account, both here in Singapore and around the world.
POLITICAL NOT LEGAL
Impeachment is inherently a "political" process, not a legal one. Thus, Speaker Pelosi and her leadership team have sole discretion as to whether to proceed with impeachment.
“An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers to be at a given moment in history,” said then Congressman (and later President) Gerald R Ford.
Article II of the US Constitution states:
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.
For a President to be removed from office, the House of Representatives first impeaches the President, and the United States Senate then convicts said President.
By her words, Speaker Pelosi does not believe President Trump should be in office.
I don't think he is fit to be President, she said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I mean, ethically unfit. Intellectually unfit. Curiosity-wise unfit". Then why does she not favour impeachment?
The Democratic Party in 2019 is nothing like Donald Trump’s Republican Party (more on that later).
“Divided” best describes the House Democratic Caucus. Speaker Pelosi needs to chart a path vis-a-vis President Trump that prevents it from becoming fractured.
While many Democrats favour impeachment, they also do not want the 2020 presidential primary season – now already underway – to be all about impeachment. Many believe the best way to retake the White House, potentially the Senate and hold the House is to focus on everyday issues like the economy and healthcare which impact most voters – the same as the Democrats did in the 2018 midterm elections.
Speaker Pelosi’s statement gives cover to allow candidates to focus on issues. It also gives time for Special Counsel Robert Mueller to finish his report and to have those findings eventually become public.
Speaker Pelosi knows she will take heat with this position given how unpopular President Trump is with Democratic voters - but she also knows how to court her Caucus.
ABOUT THE MATH
And it’s not just about counting Democratic votes. Impeachment does not mean removal from office. Impeachment is only the first step.
While the Constitution grants to the House of Representatives “the sole power of impeachment,” it grants to the Senate “the sole power to try all Impeachments”. The Constitution requires a two-thirds super majority of the Senate to convict a person being impeached. Only then will the person be removed from office.
Of the 100 US Senators, 53 are Republicans. That means at least 20 Republicans need to convict President Trump presuming every other Senator voted to do so (by no means a certainty).
President Trump’s latest approval rating from Republican voters as per the most recent Gallup poll is 90 per cent (n-i-n-e-ty per cent. Not a typo). Speaker Pelosi knows there aren't enough votes to convict today. Thus, no practical reason exists to impeach the President. Impeachment minus conviction equals President Trump remains in the Oval Office.
The House Democrats have two options when it comes to President Trump: First, impeach the President and he remains in office. Second, investigate, but don’t impeach, and count on what is uncovered to best position the Democrats to win the White House in 2020.
Speaker Pelosi and senior Democrats have made the calculation that, for now, impeachment is not an option. This does not mean impeachment is off the table for good.
Over the past 50 years, one President was impeached and one resigned before he would have been.
“Obstruction of Justice” were grounds for Articles of Impeachment for President Nixon and the impeachment of President Clinton.
Under those standards, President Trump has committed impeachable offences, though not necessarily ones for which he would be "convicted". Remember, it’s a two-step process to remove a President from office.
Further, according to key Democrats, President Trump has committed further “impeachable offences” such as with illegal hush-money payments.
Still, Speaker Pelosi knows that is not enough to have a conviction in the Senate.
WHAT TO WATCH
A time will come when the House Democratic leadership finds it is in both the country’s and their party’s best interest to impeach the President - when President Trump’s approval rating amongst Republican voters drops precipitously.
That may happen when the findings of the investigations underway are made public with regard to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Stormy Daniel’s payments, the investigations of how security clearances were granted and the conduct of the Trump Organisation, amongst others.
Or it may not.
The investigative process itself now underway of the President and his administration contains political and economic risks for governments and businesses in the region.
The recent Hanoi Summit shows US politics are never far from President Trump’s mind, as the President was clearly watching the Congressional hearing of his former lawyer Michael Cohen while engaging in high-stakes negotiations with North Korea.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on the Three Eyes and see how it unfolds.
Steven R Okun regularly provides analysis for Channel NewsAsia on US politics and trade. He serves as Senior Advisor for global strategic consultancy McLarty Associates and is in his fourth-term as a Governor of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. The views are his own.