SINGAPORE: Earlier this year, I wrote that US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi calculated that impeachment was not a good action to take at the time.
“I don’t want to see him impeached, I want to see him in prison,” she said just three months ago.
Then, Speaker Pelosi read the political situation as not being the right time for either her party or the country to consider impeachment.
The Ukraine revelations changed everything.
Last week, she announced the House of Representatives would move forward with an official impeachment inquiry.
POLITICAL NOT LEGAL
For a President to be removed from office, the House of Representatives first impeaches the President, and the United States Senate then must convict that President.
Impeachment is a political process. No underlying criminal conduct is required to proceed with the articles of 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.
“You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if [Congress] determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds … Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office,” said then Congressman (and now Senator) Lindsey Graham.
PELOSI’S NEW CALCULUS
Although the Democrats who embrace socialism like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and Ilhan Omar garner most of the media attention of the freshman Congressional class, the Democrat victory in the 2018 midterm elections could be better explained by the success of moderate members in districts won by President Trump in the 2016 election.
Speaker Pelosi knows to keep the House, these moderate freshmen need to be re-elected. It is not about AOC. It is about members who get no attention outside their districts.
These Democrats won because they focused on issues like the economy and healthcare which impact most voters. Impeachment would take away from that message and potentially cost the Democrats seats in these swing districts.
Further, impeaching the President in the House but not gaining conviction in the Senate would mean impeachment could actually backfire. Democrats lose the House and Trump gets re-elected.
Two previous Presidents have been impeached, but neither was convicted. Had he not resigned, Richard Nixon most certainly would have been convicted and removed.
Yet, the whistleblower complaint dramatically and irreversibly altered Speakers Pelosi’s calculation.
ABOUT THE MATH
As of Sep 27 (Friday), 223 out of 235 House Democrats publicly support impeachment proceedings. That is up by more than 80 since details of the Trump administration’s actions on Ukraine have come to light, and more than the number required for majority approval.
Significantly, certain Democratic members from districts won by Trump now favour impeachment proceedings.
In light of what already is known about the President’s conduct, starting the process but not impeaching the President would cause the Democratic Party to literally implode. Remember, this is a political process.
The genie is out of the impeachment lamp. It cannot go back.
A legislative navigator as shrewd as Nancy Pelosi would not have embarked on this journey without having charted the path to getting to impeachment based on what already is known of the actions of the President and his team on this case.
That is why I believe the odds of the President getting impeached are 90 per cent.
But conviction and removal is far trickier. A two-thirds supermajority is required to convict in the subsequent Senate trial.
Of the 100 US Senators, 53 are Republicans and President Trump remains extremely popular within the Republican Party.
Republican support for their leader may well decrease during the impeachment process as a parade of witnesses, including Secretary of State Pompeo and the President’s private attorney Rudy Giuliani, are subpoenaed to relate publicly elements of what may turn out to be a sordid tale.
However, it is hard to see support falling so dramatically that 20 Republican Senators, whatever reservations they privately may harbour about his conduct, would vote to convict the President.
That’s why, right now, I believe there is only a 10 per cent chance he will be removed from office.
WILL IT BACKFIRE?
This makes impeachment a risky political gambit. It is difficult to say whether Democrat or Republican voters be more fired up to actually go to the polls in what is likely to be a “base” election with relatively few undecided swing voters.
What will Pelosi have achieved if Trump is not removed from office and, propelled by a base of support enraged by the impeachment effort, wins re-election next year?
Pelosi undoubtedly would argue she and her colleagues did their constitutional duty.
In commencing the impeachment process, the Speaker said: "The President must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”
She added, "Actions taken to date by the President have seriously violated the Constitution."
She concluded, “He gave us no choice.” It is a high-risk strategy, but one she felt compelled to undertake given the huge Democrat consensus on this course of action.
THE IMPACT ON FOREIGN POLICY POST-TRUMP
The implications of the Ukraine case will have far-reaching implications for US foreign policy, regardless of the subsequent outcome.
Presidents need to have confidential conversations with world leaders. For them to be frank and useful, these conversations must be inviolable and never be leaked.
At the same time, a democratic political system requires the executive to act in a prudent and trustworthy manner. There cannot be suspicion that the President is using national security classifications to cover illegal acts or unethical conduct, let alone use the power of the government against a political opponent.
The whistleblower report smashed that trust to smithereens.
The details of the phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky needed to be made public.
There may well be more demands for President Trump to release transcripts of other conversations.
If this becomes the norm or even a realistic possibility, the frank and open discussions between any US President and world leaders will no longer occur as they have in the past.
The inherent authority of the Office of the President of the United States, an incalculable diplomatic resource, could well be diminished for the remainder of this President’s time in office.
It will take significant time and action, whomever is the next President, to restore that authority.
That will be just one of the consequences of the actions we will all be watching on Capitol Hill from Singapore and elsewhere.
Steven R Okun regularly provides analysis for CNA on US politics and trade. An official in the Administration of President Bill Clinton, 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.