Sunday 15 December 2019

Robert Schmuhl: 'Trump impeachment probe a battleground of government 'amateurs' and 'professionals''

Trump ally: Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, arrives for testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images
Trump ally: Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, arrives for testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Robert Schmuhl

Ever since Donald Trump became president nearly three years ago, he's waged war against the US federal government while also complaining that "the deep state" is out to sabotage his leadership.

Yet, from the perspective of Washington bureaucrats, the current impeachment inquiry is as much retaliation by career officials as a probe of what a newcomer to public service did - or didn't do - with military aid earmarked for Ukraine.

During the past two weeks, long-time diplomats and national security professionals have testified before the Intelligence Committee of the House of Representatives - and the American citizenry via television - about Trump administration activities last summer.

Of paramount concern is alleged linkage of foreign security assistance to investigating rumoured (though unsubstantiated) corruption by some of Mr Trump's domestic political opponents, namely former vice president Joe Biden.

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In his appearance at the Capitol, William Taylor, the chargé d'affaires in Kiev, remarked that withholding the money was puzzling: "It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy."

As the first witness of a dozen appearing, Mr Taylor set the tone, underlining the unusual nature of what transpired. The West Point graduate and non-partisan career diplomat was brought out of retirement by the State Department to serve in Ukraine after the president demanded firing Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador there since 2016.

Throughout the proceedings this week and last, a major disparity on display was the incongruity between what you might call "the amateurs" and "the professionals".

Neither the president nor Gordon Sondland, America's ambassador to the European Union, ever served in government prior to the Trump administration. A refrain of the testimony was that these neophytes engaged in conduct professionals with decades of foreign policy experience found curious and dubious.

Notably, Mr Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and big-dollar political donor, made a mobile phone call to Mr Trump from a Kiev restaurant without worrying about security implications of the conversation.

Anyone with minuscule awareness of eavesdropping by Russians (and others) found that much-discussed call more than troubling, and many of his statements during his testimony on Wednesday proved just as disturbing.

Clarifying his account of what happened for the third time, he implicated the president, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others.

"Everyone was in the loop," Mr Sondland boasted.

In Mr Trump's case, a fundamental question hovering over the entire probe is: does he really know any better?

That's not a politically telegraphed punch. Suspicious episodes litter his biography as a real estate mogul and television performer.

Multiple legal judgments and bankruptcies provide evidence of a past probably not worthy of recommendation for sainthood.

In becoming who he is, Mr Trump always acted alone and dealt with every problem as a personal fight. Now he's in a position to attack the government bureaucracy when he thinks it's not appropriately behind what he's proposing or doing.

Many of his fervent supporters loudly cheer his relentless assaults on the entrenched civil service and the so-called "Washington swamp" of lobbyists. Their hatred of the permanent government matches their devotion to Mr Trump.

However, recent opinion surveys reflect a hardening view that the president's actions related to Ukraine - in a popular formulation "trading military arms for political dirt" - bothers the public at large.

An ABC News-Ipsos poll released earlier this week reports 70pc of Americans think Mr Trump's actions were "wrong", with 51pc going so far as to say he deserves both impeachment and removal from office.

That explains why what's happening in Congress is conspicuously rattling him. He doesn't feel in control and he's lashing out on Twitter with abandon.

Even West Wing staff professionals offering Congressional testimony are on the receiving end of poisonous tweets, leading the 'New York Times' to publish a page-one headline this week: 'A White House Now "Cannibalizing Itself".'

Back in May, Mr Trump told reporters, "To me, it's a dirty word - the word impeach. It's a dirty, filthy, disgusting word."

On Thursday he repeated his disdain on Twitter: "I never in my wildest dreams thought my name would in any way be associated with the ugly word, Impeachment!"

The president's current response to the "dirty" or "ugly" word is almost single-minded preoccupation with impeachment when he speaks in public or wails on social media. To say the president is consumed by what's unfolding around him could never be classified as 'fake news'.

As the first stage for possible impeachment nears its end, the future gets cloudy. Will the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, or John Bolton, who served until early September as national security advisor, appear before Congress to discuss what they know? Will Mr Pompeo explain his role?

Most political observers, including Trump loyalists, think the House, controlled by Democrats, will vote to impeach Mr Trump, possibly as early as next month.

Impeachment in the US system is akin to indictment in a court of law, and it would initiate a trial in the Senate, currently in Republican hands.

To convict the president would take the consent and approval of 20 Republican senators, a prospect nobody can foresee at this time.

That would mean next year's election could decide Mr Trump's political fate. An impeached president has never faced voters. How that historical stain might affect anyone's electoral calculus is unknown.

With the Democratic Party currently struggling to find a standard bearer strong enough to withstand Mr Trump's broadsides and ultimately defeat him, American politics promises to be in overdrive almost every hour for the next several months.

Robert Schmuhl is professor emeritus of American Studies at the University of Notre Dame and adjunct professor in the School of Law and Government at Dublin City University. He is author of 'The Glory and the Burden: The American Presidency from FDR to Trump'.

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