Elizabeth Olsson | 18 November 2019
Impeachment hearings— concerning U.S. President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine— began in the House of Representatives on Thursday, November 14. On day one, Representative Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, made an opening statement emphasizing that the hearings were neither about Trump nor the future of Trump’s presidency; they were about “the future of the presidency itself and what kind of conduct or misconduct the American people may come to expect from their Commander-and-Chief.” While many in the American political establishment lauded Schiff for placing the hearings in a historical context and thereby emphasizing their significance, those on the outside were left wondering: What is going on here? Is this really about a constitutional violation of power by the U.S. president, or is something else happening? After all, Trump and his associates have seemingly violated the law on multiple occasions with the latest legal violation occurring on November 15 when Trump ostensibly engaged in witness intimidation on Twitter. It turns out these hearings are not about the law, the constitution, or even presidential misconduct; they are about a political system in tatters. This post explains the partisan politics on display in the hearings, the reasons why this is a political rather than a legal inquiry, and the repercussions the hearings are likely to have on U.S. politics more generally.
Partisan politics have a unique flavor in the US. There are only two major political parties: Democrats and Republicans. While their political agendas are not particularly distinct— at least by international standards— they employ two very different political approaches. Democrats tend to appeal to abstract notions of fairness, equality, and justice. You may recall Obama’s appeal to hope during his presidential bid. Of course, when Democrats’ talk of principles falls flat, they veer toward righteous indignation. Republicans are, arguably, much more strategic. They tend to employ practical measures and targeted discourses to immobilize their opponents. Thus Trump and his supporters talk about the sham impeachment hearings so consistently that those not certain of what to make of the hearings adopt this discourse. We saw this happen in real-time during Friday’s hearing when Republican Rep. Devin Nunes yielded his time to Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik so that she could “ask a couple of questions.” The problem was, Nunes was not allowed to yield his time according to the procedures for the impeachment inquiry— procedures that the House passed just two weeks ago. What followed was an attempt to manufacture outrage at Democrats for attempting to silence Republicans. Nunes and Stefanik were engaging in signature Republican tactics of shifting attention away from the testimony of former Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and towards the “unfairness” leveled against them by their political adversaries.
As this tantrum over procedure further demonstrates, these hearings concern neither the law nor the constitution; they are about further dividing the American population along political lines. We know these hearings are not about the law since six of Trump’s intimate associates have already been convicted of lying to Congress (Cohen and Stone), campaign finance violations (Cohen), tax evasion (Cohen), lying to FBI agents (Flynn and Papadopoulos), tax and bank fraud (Manafort), and conspiracy (Gates)— in connection to the Mueller report. Courts found these men guilty of violating the law while working for Trump, and yet, the current impeachment hearings are the first Congressional investigation into the President’s misconduct. Either Congress was not convinced that Trump had previously violated the law or something else was happening.
The reason why Democrats have long been reluctant to launch an impeachment inquiry is they are afraid Trump will win re-election in 2020. House Speaker Pelosi has repeatedly suggested to Democrats that they let the political process play out rather than passing articles of impeachment. Pelosi did not take this stance because she supported or even tolerated Trump, but because she did not want impeachment hearings to blow up in Democrats’ faces and jeopardize the upcoming election. Unfortunately, for Pelosi and Democrats more generally, this strategy proved untenable when a whistle-blower’s report forced lawmakers to question whether Trump had engaged in extortion in a phone call to newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25, 2019. This act was so egregious, the transcripts so problematic, and the message from witnesses and staffers so damning, that Pelosi and the House Intelligence Committee had no choice but to pursue impeachment.
After two days of impeachment hearings, it appears that Democrats’ fears are being realized. As the questioning, statements, and testimonies demonstrate, Democrats and Republicans are putting on a show of investigating presidential misconduct in order to engage in their typical partisan displays. Democrats proceed with righteous indignation, and Republicans respond with slogans and maneuvering that shift focus away from the July 25th phone call and toward what Trump calls a “Democratic witch hunt.” If the hearings proceed this way— and there is no indication they will change course— they will further entrench political divisions in a country in tatters. A country where Democrats and Republicans are so convinced that they are right and the other is wrong that they do not engage in conversation. A country where some Democratic voters still do not speak to family members who voted for Trump in 2016. A country where the political system appears rigged and on the brink of self-destruction.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. She was born and raised in the United States and studied U.S. politics at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1998-2002. She relocated to Sweden permanently in 2007.