- Siddharth Kaushik
Democracy through Numbers
On 6th February, Donald Trump was acquitted by the Senate from the charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. Understanding the impeachment process is rather easy. The constitution of the United States of America says that the President can be removed for treason, bribery, or other Crime and Misdemeanour. The process includes two phases, where firstly, the House of Representatives forms a bill of Impeachment which includes the articles based on which the impeachment is being passed. Once passed in the House, the Senate has a trial to judge whether the articles stand to be true and worthy to remove the President. Once approved by Senate the President is removed from office. To date, no US President has been impeached. This, however, does not mean that Donald Trump’s impeachment was the same as the other two. The background for his impeachment reflects one of the most direct and blatant abuse of power by a President and also exposes one of the biggest flaws in America’s democratic system, the undemocratic nature of the impeachment process. Andrew Johnson, who was the first-ever President to be impeached, on charges of violation of the Office of Tenure Act wherein he had removed certain government officials without due process. This action of President Johnson, however insolent, did not amount to an abuse of power and he was acquitted by the Senate. The second case was that of Bill Clinton. President Clinton was charged with perjury, with regards to a case of sexual harassment filed against him. This was perhaps a more appropriate grounds for impeachment. Although, it did not ring true with most members of Congress and President Clinton too was acquitted.
In April 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky became the President of Ukraine. A few months later, the USA sanctioned $391M to the Ukrainian military as aid, President Trump, however, blocked this aid. On 25 July 2019, President Trump and President Zelensky participated in a telephonic conversation. Through the course of this phone call, President Trump made it abundantly clear that Ukraine owed the United States of America, in lieu of the support they had received from the USA. President Trump asked for some favor and then proceeded to nonchalantly mention some talk going around in Ukraine about Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. It was this phone call that drew the ire of the Congress. During the time of the phone-call, Joe Biden was the front runner to face Trump in the 2020 Presidential election. Back in 2014, Hunter Biden had a job with a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma. At that time the British government was investigating the owner of the company for money laundering and asked Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Viktor Shokin to look into the matter. Much to everyone’s dismay, Shokin refused to do so and was later asked to render his resignation. He was finally removed from office after a state visit by the then Vice President of USA, Joe Biden.
Only when we see the phone call in conjunction with these events, we can begin to hint at the motives President Trump may have had. Donald. Trump mentioned in his phone call on the 25 July, that he suspected that Shokin was fired for a completely different reason. He indirectly asked for proof that Joe Biden pushed for Shokin’s removal. This, however, is not congruent with the information available to us, given that Hunter Biden was employed by Burisma. Despite this, President Trump wanted proof that could be misconstrued like Biden was complicit in the removal. After all, who wouldn’t like a head start in the Presidential campaign? Another interesting fact to note here is the lapse of judgment by the White House staff in putting the records of the under confidential files rather than files that can be accessed by public departments. A few weeks later, the military aid to Ukraine was released. The chain of events highlighted here, perhaps, qualifies as a blatant abuse of power.
But this is where democracy in America failed. This is exactly where partisanship overlooked the very ideals and morals which formed the very essence of American democracy. Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, in 1778 talked about how impeachment should work in an ideal state. He did not want to give the power of impeachment to the Supreme Court or an independent tribunal but a bunch of power-hungry politicians. At this juncture, one may ask, why? He made the case that the basis of impeachment of the most powerful man in the country has to be ‘ Political’. It may or may not be legal but a political act that has an impact on society. Although, I believe, that his argument does not stand on account of the subjectivity of said political act. For a Democrat, a certain act may be a political offense but for a Republican, it is perfectly within the ambit of the powers of the President. This is the reason that whether these acts are an offense or not are decided by the strength either party holds and not the impact such an offense has. It all depends on the numbers in the Senate. Suffice to say, President Trump just needed one more vote than the Democrats to keep his office, which he did. He was not tried in the Senate the way Hamilton imagined. It was not a body that was impartial in following its duty to make an overreaching executive liable for his actions. It has gone from being a political remedy to a partisan remedy. At the end of the day, President Trump was tried by those very Senators who depend on him for power. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader said that he would block impeachment from the very start. Other republicans denied that what President Trump did is an abuse of political influence.
From this point, the threat to democracy can only become worse. Since it has now set a precedent for future Presidents that once in office, they can do whatever they deem right, as long as their party has the majority in the Senate. This goes against the very core of democratic ideals of distribution of power and the prevention of autocratic rule. Even the Supreme court becomes powerless in such a structure. It is not only the case with America but with most of the democracies in the world. Everywhere, the executive is becoming increasingly authoritarian, the legislature has become a tool for the executive to exploit and the judiciary has become powerless. The three pillars of democracy are falling to the biases of partisanship through political parties and their ideologies. But maybe we can find a silver lining here. In this time where political doomsday has become the new normal, impeaching President Trump isn’t completely an inconsequential act. Through this trial, new witnesses and documents have been released which reflect how truly despotic, this act was. The politicians too have become aware of that. As is evident by how the only vote from a Republican senator to remove President Trump came from former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. This process against Donald Trump has transformed into a public disgrace and the approval polls for the President have gone to worst in all of his tenure. This may not be as strong as removal from office but it is the most achievable thing close to it. This case will now reform the 2020 election and possibly make room for a conversation about President Trump’s actions free from partisan bias.
In America’s case, the people will be the judges this year. It also becomes an important lesson to the Americans and all the other countries which hail democracy as the perfect system. The truth is that it is not. It may be the best available system but it is not perfect in any sense. And this whole process is the biggest proof of it. At the end of the day, party politics, personal vendettas, and other agendas are not in perfect sync with the idea of democracy. The best we can do is to hold people liable. I sincerely hope that someday it will all come down to the earliest and most famous understanding of democracy, the power lies with the people. And that is not just the case with America. The same understanding can be applied to the incitement of communal tensions in India or a highly conservative and authoritarian leadership in Brazil. It is us, the voters who will have the final say. Democracy will die, not on the day politicians force their thinking onto us but when we prevent ourselves from thinking rationally.