Which led US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to change her mind and file a case for ousting Donald Trump, even though there was a slim chance of conviction. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, during a statement announcing the opening of a formal impeachment case against President Donald Trump on Tuesday (9/24)
Mandel Ngan / AFP
Still in August, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reluctant to accept the impeachment request against President Donald Trump. Faced with new allegations that Trump used the power of office against a political rival, Pelosi changed his mind and formally began impeachment proceedings in the House yesterday.
Because Republicans control the Senate, where it takes two-thirds of the vote to overthrow the president, Trump's chance of falling is slim. Why, then, did Pelosi immediately decide to give in to pressures for impeachment, which he had been resisting for two years? What has changed in the political calculation of the Democrats?
A first reason is the crystalline character of the case against Trump that emerged over the past two weeks as a result of the testimony of a whistleblower linked to the intelligence community. The statement has not yet surfaced, as the chief executive has alleged bureaucratic issues not to turn it over to the House Intelligence Commission.
According to information published in the American press, the whistleblower reported attempts by Trump's lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, to force an investigation in Ukraine against former Vice President Joe Biden (favorite to face Trump in the US). next year's elections) and his son Hunter Biden, who worked for nearly five years as an executive at a local gas company whose owner is accused of corruption.
After the existence of the testimony was discovered, a fact emerged that unequivocally compromises Trump. He ordered $ 400 million in military aid to Ukraine to be withheld before a telephone conversation on July 25 with the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is accused of having put pressure on the investigation against the son of Biden
If Trump used the office of president to force a foreign government to investigate a political opponent, there are clear elements to justify the allegations of abuse of power. This is a far less controversial case than Russia's interference in the 2016 election campaign or the attempts to obstruct justice reported by Attorney General Robert Mueller.
In March, Mueller was close to recommending Trump's indictment. Since the US Constitution is ambiguous about the possibility of indicting an incumbent president but not about impeachment, he preferred to leave any decision to Congress.
Still, Pelosi resisted accepting the impeachment request that has been on his desk since 2017 and was renewed in January. He feared that a long and exhausting process around controversial and difficult to understand accusations would be counterproductive. It could turn against the Democrats themselves in next year's election campaign. This time the clarity of the accusation changed her mind.
Two other factors also contributed to the decision. First, the nature of the case – an attack on the military intelligence community – makes it easier to persuade deputies who resisted facing Trump because of relying on votes from Republican or independent voters.
Second, Trump has become more aggressive and virulent and has sparked even greater revolt in the hardest wing of the Democratic Party. Reaching the 2020 elections without doing anything against him in the face of such a scandal would convey a sense of laxity.
It is true that the party bets high and risks losing Republican or independent voters as the facts of the case come to light. Trump pledged to release an edited version of his conversation with Zelensky. National Intelligence Director Joseph Maguire will one hour deliver the whistleblower's statement to Congress. Whether the facts corroborate the Democrats' version is unknown.
Another source of problems will be the impeachment process itself, quite different from the Brazilian one. The word impeachment itself has another meaning there. While it refers here to the removal of the president from office, in the United States only means the approval of the charges against him by the House. This requires only 218 of the 435 deputies (half plus one instead of the two-thirds required by the Brazilian Constitution).
Only two US presidents were impeached: Andrew Johnson (in 1868) and Bill Clinton (in 1998). Both were acquitted when tried in the Senate, where a two-thirds majority is required for sentencing and deposition. Richard Nixon resigned before his impeachment was voted on, when the charges had already been made in the House.
The US Constitution is extremely vague as to the reasons for removing a president from office. In Article II, it says only that he should be deposed for "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." The phrase “high crimes and misdemeanors” is broad enough to consider offenses worth impeachment anything that parliamentarians might find offensive.
The course of the proceedings is not determined in the Constitution either. In the cases of Nixon and Clinton, it was up to the Justice Commission to conduct the inquiry and draft the "impeachment articles" with the charges. Pelosi is reported to have asked the six House committees investigating Trump today to submit their findings to the courts.
The Court then votes on the articles to be submitted to the plenary. There were three against Nixon, two against Clinton (perjury and abuse of power). The composition of the commission is unfavorable to Trump: 17 Republicans and 24 Democrats. It only takes 21 votes to approve a charge.
Once approved by the committee, the articles go to plenary, where they pass by a simple majority (218 out of 435 deputies). There are 235 Democrats, 198 Republicans, an independent and a vacant chair. If the House plenary approves the articles, the president will be considered formally barred and will go to trial in the Senate – that is where Americans use the word impeachment.
The Senate trial is commanded by the president of the Supreme Court. House MPs play the role of promoters. The president is entitled to his own lawyers. There is no rule about how many testimonials are admitted or about the length of the proceedings. It is as if the jury itself (the senators) determined the rules of the trial. In Clinton's case, there was a long dispute.
Impeachment is an exceptional process in the presidential regime and should be used with the greatest care to avoid risks to democracy. In the Federalist Articles, Alexander Hamilton, one of the fathers of the American Constitution, recommended caution. Impeachment, he said, should only be applied in cases of "abuse or breach of public trust" for "harm to society itself."
The mere existence of the process would, according to Hamilton, suffice to split the country in half or aggravate divisions. "In many cases, it will connect with pre-existing factions, and regiment all their animosities, biases, influence and interest on one side or the other," he wrote. "In such cases there will always be a risk that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative force of the parties than by the actual demonstrations of guilt or innocence." Such divisions may even favor Trump electorally, especially if, as expected, he is acquitted.