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Larry Donnelly: Removing Trump from office is still a remote possibility

How one sees the state of play depends, as ever, on which side of the aisle he is on, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

SPEAKER NANCY PELOSI made a decision on Tuesday – to authorise an impeachment inquiry in the United States House of Representatives – that she had long dreaded and some would say avoided. 

The chorus of her party colleagues calling for this extraordinary sanction against Donald Trump swiftly swelled from a smallish grouping on the hard left to an overwhelming majority of Democrats, including some of the ever-dwindling band of moderate legislators in America’s lower chamber.

It was, of course, precipitated by a whistle blower’s revelation that the president asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the dealings of Hunter Biden and indirectly those of his father, the former vice president and current presidential candidate Joe Biden, in his country. 

Hunter Biden apparently did very well financially while serving on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time as his father was the Obama administration’s “point person” in its diplomatic efforts there.

This, as well as the removal of a prosecutor investigating that company’s owner at the urging of the elder Biden and other western leaders, raised the hackles of some watchers, but no credible evidence of corruption has ever been produced.

President Trump’s request came at a time when a package of military aid to Ukraine had been put on hold.  And the aid only was released when the whistle blower’s allegations came to light. The idea that the president would proactively seek to have a foreign country influence an ongoing election campaign by urging it to “dig up dirt” on a potential adversary who has a strong lead in the opinion polls, and would use taxpayers’ money to entice it to do so, pushed wavering Democrats into backing impeachment proceedings.

Indeed, it is shocking to hear such a charge, even against an unprecedented president who has desensitised us all, whether we are ready to admit it or not.

ny-new-york-papers-report-on-pelosi-impeachment-inquiry Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

In response to Pelosi’s declaration of political war, Trump delivered a strong counterpunch in the form of a tweeted video of high-profile Democrats reiterating that impeachment was “always on the table” and that their “sole focus” was to deny him a second term.

Portraying them as preoccupied with taking him out at all costs, especially after a lengthy and costly investigation into purported collusion between his 2016 campaign and the Russian government did not unearth what his enemies claimed it would, is a clever political strategy.

And notably, the first poll taken since this latest sordid story broke indicates that just 37% of Americans support impeachment; 57% are opposed. 

The latter figure includes a sizable segment of the population who will not vote to re-elect Donald Trump, yet do not desire his impeachment and the course of action that eventuality would entail.  This is another warning sign for Democrats. Moreover, most figures on jobs and the economy remain solid.

It is with all of this as context that on Wednesday we eagerly awaited the transcript of a phone call between Presidents Trump and Zelensky from the 25 July.  The bombastic New York businessman, describing it as “absolutely perfect,” authorised its un-redacted contents to be released.

Upon its being made public, he tweeted that Democrats should apologise for leaping to judgment about what was said in the conversation two months ago.  Another Democratic presidential candidate, Senator Elizabeth Warren, asserted that “this ‘transcript’ itself is a smoking gun.”

Her placement of transcript in inverted commas echoes the protests of many in her party who do not trust the administration one bit and are demanding to see the full complaint of the whistleblower.

In truth, while the transcript is more inculpatory than exculpatory, it is unlikely to prove a game-changer. 

President Trump says to his counterpart that he “heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair…Mr Giuliani is a highly respected man…I would like him to call you along with the Attorney General…The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.”

trump-intelligence-whistleblower-memo A White House-released rough transcript of President Donald Trump's July 25, 2019 telephone conversation with Ukraine's newly elected president Volodymyr Zelenskiy Source: AP/PA Images

Now as the president and his defenders have been at pains to point out, there is no express offer of a quid pro quo and no deal. There is no clear statement to the effect that, if you investigate, we will release the aid.

Nonetheless, it could very plausibly be inferred that he was implying as much.  Urging President Zelensky to accept help from the two lawyers closest to him is extremely odd and highly inappropriate. The overarching tenor of his communication with President Zelensky is equally unsettling and sleazy.

On the other hand, Trump opines: “We do a lot for Ukraine.  We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time. Much more than European countries are doing and they should be helping you more than they are.  Germany does almost nothing for you.” His allies will posit that herein lies the real reason (of several that have been offered) for delaying further aid to Ukraine and that his frank comments are entirely consistent with his oft-repeated mantra that the US spends too much on foreign aid and, in particular, that it has been carrying water for Europe for too long.

Perhaps above all, and not for the first time, President Trump’s unartful, often incoherent, simultaneously halting and rambling style of verbal communication actually promotes his own interests in this instance. 

Already, experts are scrutinising the myriad quirks of speech in the transcript and questioning what a lot of it means.

The use of ellipses to signify inaudibility or a voice trailing off at more than one crucial juncture is troubling.  The messaging is laced with ambiguity. This makes the broader meaning and, in turn, the man who conveyed it harder to nail down definitively.

Where are we now? 

How one sees the state of play depends, as ever, on which side of the aisle he is on.  Democratic Senator Bob Casey says that Donald Trump has used “the power of his office to pressure a foreign government to investigate his political opponent.  This conduct represents a textbook abuse of power, which is also well-established within the definition of ‘high crimes and misdemeanours’”. 

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Thom Tillis writes that “Nancy Pelosi should be embarrassed.  The transcript debunks the Democrats’ false claims against President @realDonaldTrump and demonstrates their call to impeach him is a total farce.”

So, again, where are we now?  In sum, impeachment by a majority of the House of Representatives is a more realistic prospect than it ever has been. 

But the follow-on step of removing President Trump from office before November 2020 with the required votes of two-thirds of the membership of the Senate is still a remote possibility. 

One thing can be said with certainty: what transpires in the coming days and weeks will dictate the trajectory of next year’s immeasurably important race for the White House.

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

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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