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Larry Donnelly: Isn’t it nice to have someone we can honestly respect in charge?

Larry Donnelly analyses the new US President’s first few weeks in action.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

THE NEW PRESIDENT of the United States, Joe Biden, has hit the ground running, just as the 78-year-old pledged he would.

He has been extremely active in signing executive orders, which are directives the president is empowered to promulgate by virtue of his constitutional executive and enforcement authority.

There have been 25 already. At this stage of their presidencies, Donald Trump and Barack Obama had signed 7 and 9 respectively.

Many of these have been a payback to the progressive elements of the Democratic Party who were sceptical about the once moderate US Senator from Delaware – Biden in the 1970s professed that he was “about as conservative as your grandmother” on a range of social issues – yet rallied around him when they recognised that he represented their best chance to defeat President Trump.

On Covid-19, these include compulsory wearing of masks on federal property, a pause on student loan payments through September and a moratorium on foreclosures and evictions.

His executive orders on the environment have ended construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil and gas pipeline and reinstated the US in the Paris climate agreement.

On immigration, President Biden has moved to “reset policies and practices for enforcing civil immigration laws,” to halt construction of the vaunted wall on the Mexican border, to end the prohibition on resident citizens of several predominantly Muslim nations from entering the US and to strengthen protections for undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country by their parents as children.

Also, he has rescinded the ban on transgender people serving in the military enacted by his predecessor.

These were high on the left’s wish list. And there are more in a similar vein.

This may be a deliberate tactic: undo to the extent possible what most outraged liberal Democrats with the stroke of a pen; absorb the anger from the right as a necessary hit in the anticipation that it will fade; then embark upon protracted negotiations with congressional Republicans on initiatives that will appeal more broadly and from which he can emerge as a “compassionate centrist” in a divided Washington.

dc-inauguration-of-joe-biden-as-46th-president-of-the-united-states Joe and Jill Biden on inauguration day. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

It will not be easy to get things done in the Senate and House of Representatives, which are led by razor-thin Democratic majorities.

That is manifested from ongoing discussions on the coronavirus stimulus package that has been advanced by the White House.

Crucially, those in the GOP who may be amenable to getting on board with it, such as Mitt Romney, have commented that the $1.9 trillion (€1.58 trillion) price tag is too high for their liking.

Getting this obviously mammoth expenditure, as well as any proposal to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, over the line will probably require Joe Biden and the Democrats to roll up their sleeves and engage in the nitty-gritty of compromising to achieve their legislative aims.

This was something his old boss, President Obama, was not renowned for. Fortunately for Biden, he can call upon decades of experience as a lawmaker, as well as strong personal relationships, on this front.

Meanwhile, however, Biden’s agenda is set to be temporarily derailed insofar as attention will turn this week to another Donald Trump impeachment trial.

The legal submissions ahead of its commencement signal what the lines of argument and strategies will be. Each side will be playing both to the 100 member jury in the US Senate, two-thirds of whom will have to vote in favour of conviction, and, equally importantly, to the wider electorate.

ny-pro-trump-supporters-breach-the-u-s-capitol-building Pro-Trump protesters in the US Capitol building on 6 January. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

There is a sole article to consider, incitement to insurrection, and it boils down to what transpired in a few hours on 6 January 2021 on live television.

The House managers, those Democrats chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to prosecute the case, have drafted a provocative brief.

In their words, “President Trump created a powder keg on January 6. Hundreds were prepared for violence at his direction…All they needed to hear was their President needed them to ‘fight like hell.’ All they needed was for President Trump to strike a match.”

Trump is hence “singularly responsible” for the mayhem on Capitol Hill that resulted in the deaths of five people.

The managers contend that his conduct is clearly incitement to insurrection and rises to the level of high crime or misdemeanour mandated by the US Constitution. They dispute that what Trump said is shielded by the 1st Amendment.

Additionally, they cite relatively ancient precedent showing that former office holders have been subjected to impeachment trials and outline the dangers inherent in allowing them to escape culpability simply by resigning prior to a trial.

Trump’s defence team has responded in its answer by assailing the constitutional legitimacy of a trial in the circumstances. “The constitutional provision requires that a person actually hold office to be impeached. Since the 45th President is no longer ‘President,’ the clause ‘shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for…’ is impossible for the Senate to accomplish.”

The answer goes on to deny that the president’s remarks were the catalyst for the unrest on 6 January and assert that the words he employed were permissible under and protected by the 1st Amendment.

Senate Republicans are concerned that the defence lawyers, at their client’s behest, may also seek to re-litigate the election result because they have denied that Trump’s allegation of voter fraud on the infamous day was false.

This trepidation flows from their cognisance of how determined the ex-president is to avoid facing the truth that he lost. They are anxious lest they be associated with the conspiracy theorists who continue to offer him succour.

It is far safer for these Republicans to hang their hats on constitutional doubts and on a connected practical thought that is bound to strike many Americans: What is the point of this trial? The “duck” is there for them.

Given that conservatives are wary of offending those still faithful to Trump, the safe betting is that most GOP senators will rely explicitly on these grounds and the avid senior golfer who has decamped to Florida will be acquitted at the close of trial. Barring a big surprise, only a handful will join with the Democrats.

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Nonetheless, I will be monitoring proceedings diligently.

First, I want to see how long it will take. I am hopeful that a trial involving one article and highly visible events that occurred in a short space of time won’t drag on unduly – even in a body that invariably operates at glacial speed. I am guessing that President Biden wants it over quickly and has communicated this to Democratic congressional leaders.

Second, I am curious at both a human and a political level to observe how Congressman Jamie Rankin – a law professor turned politician who lost his son to suicide just before 6 January and is lead counsel for the House managers – performs under the spotlight.

That he would not step away from such a prominent role in the immediate aftermath of a profound family tragedy will make Rankin a household name and a patriot in the eyes of many.

When the trial has wrapped up, it will be fascinating to see if Donald Trump has been resuscitated or even further diminished. No matter how they vote as jurors, I suspect that there is broad bipartisan yearning, whether public or private, for the latter outcome in the US Senate.

Regardless of the disparate motivations underpinning their sentiments, I fully concur. Isn’t it nice to have someone we can honestly respect in charge?

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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