Jordan Andrews reports on the controversial phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and explains the impeachment process that it has set in motion .
“I would like you to do us a favour” said Donald Trump, responding to a question about the acquisition of US military aid. He was speaking on the phone to Volodymyr Zelensky, then newly elected President of Ukraine, on 25 July – a week after ordering $391 million of military funds to the country be frozen. Trump went on to ask Zelensky to investigate widely dismissed corruption claims against Joe Biden, one of his likeliest opponents in next year’s presidential elections, and his son Hunter Biden.
the impeachment proceedings that have started are no small matter
While, at first glance, Donald Trump’s pressure on Zelensky might appear to be just another one of Trump’s many indiscretions, the impeachment proceedings that have started in response are no small matter. The charge, abuse of power and soliciting foreign influence in American elections, is serious. It has been enough to persuade many moderate Democrats who previously opposed impeachment, particularly Nancy Pelosi, leader of the House of Representatives, to move against him.
Allegations surrounding Trump’s call to Zelensky first surfaced in mid-September, when The Washington Post revealed the existence of a report by an anonymous whistleblower in US intelligence that expressed concerns about Trump’s behaviour towards Ukraine. In the phone call – a summary of which was reluctantly released by the White House as the furore grew – Trump had told Zelensky to “play ball” and investigate unsubstantiated claims against Joe Biden. In 2016 Biden (then Vice President) supposedly pushed for the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor general Viktor Shokin because he was investigating Burisma, a Ukrainian company that Hunter Biden worked for. (Biden’s intervention was due to the Obama administration’s view that Shokin was protecting the country’s oligarchs. The investigation into Burisma, which was focused on the company’s multimillionaire owner, was dormant when Shokin was fired.)
Allegedly, the White House had attempted to “lockdown” the transcript of the phone call to avoid incriminating Trump
Trump also asked Zelensky to look into the conspiracy theory that a Ukrainian group was behind the release of Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential election – as opposed to the widely accepted view that the hacking was part of coordinated Russian interference in the election. The whistleblower’s report went further, alleging that the White House had attempted to “lock down” the transcript of the phone call to avoid incriminating Trump. It also expressed concern about a series of meetings in which Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and former Mayor of New York, had repeatedly told Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens; Giuliani later publicly admitted to this.
So, what happens next? If the allegations are true, the withholding of state funds and misuse of American military influence to further personal political aims is clearly an abuse of power. But although it’s a damning accusation, removing a president is not a straightforward task.
Once the impeachment investigation has run its course, a simple majority of 218 votes is needed in the House of Representatives. The Democrats have a majority there, so this looks plausible. The next step is a trial in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is needed to convict the President and remove him from office. This looks exceedingly difficult as the Republicans control 53 out of 100 seats, requiring 20 Republican senators to vote against their president. However, it would be wrong to dismiss this possibility entirely. If the inquiry produces firm evidence of serious wrongdoing by Trump, Republicans will face the dilemma of creating a precedent of impunity for any future Democratic president. The possibility that Trump acted against America’s strategic interests in the region will also be problematic – refusing to impeach Trump may undermine America’s standing in the eyes of rivals such as Russia and China.
Republican senators also have plenty of reasons to oppose impeachment. The US Constitution is ambiguous about what behaviours qualify a president for removal, meaning that the process in inherently dependent on public opinion – and although support for impeachment has risen, the latest polls still place it at around 45% of the American population. Trump will attempt to portray the proceedings as a witch-hunt by Democrats. The bureaucratic tedium of hearings, subpoenas and poring over records that comes with an investigation could easily play into this narrative. The Bidens’ messy entanglement in Ukraine will only muddy the waters further, as will last week’s questioning of Joseph Maguire, the senior intelligence official who handled the whistleblower’s report. It is difficult to see how Trump’s supporters will change their minds about him given the string of scandals that he has shrugged off so far during his presidency.
The Bidens’ messy entanglement in Ukraine will only muddy the waters further
Previous impeachment inquiries, such as those into Nixon and Clinton, have taken on a life of their own: bringing down political figures, exposing scandal and capturing public attention – expect similar things over the next couple of months as the political drama plays out. The inquiry has already produced its first victim, US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, who seems to have resigned over his role in connecting Giuliani to Ukrainian officials. Nancy Pelosi has said she’s aiming for an impeachment vote by the end of the year. A lot may change in that time.
Trump’s phone call lies at the heart of what looks set to become a long, fraught battle. Removing a sitting president (or choosing not to remove a sitting president) is a decision that will have far-reaching implications and is just as much a political decision as a legal one. The process will probably accentuate America’s bitter political divide. The country’s politicians will face a crucial choice when the inquiry concludes.