Moment that mattered: Nancy Pelosi annouces an impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump
Like everyone else I’d slightly assumed that impeachment proceedings couldn’t happen,” says Ian Hislop, editor of satirical and current affairs magazine Private Eye. “It felt like somehow the normal rules didn’t apply to President Trump and that everything would always be an anticlimax, like it was with the Mueller report. Once again it would be ‘It’s going to happen, it’s going to happen… Oh dear nothing’s happened.’ Only this time something did happen.”
On 24th September 2019, House speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the launch of an impeachment inquiry into President Trump. “The president must be held accountable. No one is above the law,” she said in a speech on Capitol Hill, going on to describe “the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections.” President Trump, who had been speaking at the UN in New York that day, reacted angrily on Twitter. “Such an important day at the United Nations, so much work and so much success, and the Democrats purposely had to ruin and demean it with more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage. So bad for our Country!”
The “breaking news Witch Hunt garbage” accusation is that in a phone call on 25th July 2019, Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to announce an investigation into Joe Biden. Trump wanted Zelensky to investigate a debunked allegation that Biden had sought to have the Ukrainian prosecutor general dismissed during his time as US vice president in order to protect his son Hunter, who was working for Ukrainian energy company Burisma at the time. Biden is the frontrunner in the race to stand against Trump in the 2020 presidential election.
The call with Zelensky took place shortly after Trump blocked $391 million in military aid to Ukraine. “The suggestion is that Trump sought foreign interference in US domestic politics in return for aid,” says Hislop. “And you just aren’t allowed to do that as president.” Both soliciting foreign interference in an American election and bribery could count as one of the “high crimes and misdemeanours” for which presidents can be impeached under Article Two of the country’s Constitution.
But impeachment motions are notoriously difficult to make stick. In order to lead to the removal of the president, they have to pass the House of Representatives, currently controlled by the Democrats, with a simple majority. They then have to pass the Senate, currently controlled by Trump’s Republican party, with a two thirds majority. Only two have ever passed the House – against Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 – and neither passed the Senate. “We’re always told that the maths of impeachment is insurmountable, but this time it might actually happen,” says Hislop. “The choice of subject for the impeachment helps. It’s the same thing as has been discussed before with Trump, it’s foreign interference, but there’s no murky Russian background this time, it’s something really specific.”
“In this case the president gave the evidence himself, voluntarily, on television”
Trump has admitted to asking Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in the 25th July call – an admission confirmed by a partial transcript of the conversation released by the White House – but denies there was any ‘quid pro quo’. On 3rd October, in front of reporters on the south lawn of the White House, he publicly stated that Zelensky should “start a major investigation into the Bidens”. Trump also said China should get involved.
“It was very funny,” says Hislop. “The thing that was marvellous from a satirist’s point of view was that normally you’d think ‘We’re going to have to wait for the evidence’ and in this case the president gave the evidence himself, voluntarily, on television. He told everyone Ukraine should look into Biden for corruption. He also, in the middle of a trade war with China, said ‘Why isn’t China helping me out?’ Presumably this is something for MI6 to look into as well – if the UK wants a decent trade deal with the US after Brexit, we’ll just have to come up with some dirt on Biden, as that seems to be how it works now.”
Publicly demanding investigations into the alleged corruption of opponents while being investigated for alleged corruption himself is typical of the president’s approach, says Hislop. “Trump’s always accusing other people of what you want to accuse him of doing. He accuses other people of fake news when they’re telling the real story, he accuses other people of being vain when he’s being vain, he accuses other people of failing when he’s failing.” Nonetheless it is a high risk tactic. As Hillary Clinton said after the 3rd October broadcast, “Someone should inform the president that impeachable offenses committed on national television still count.”
Trump’s apparent self-incrimination can also be understood as a method of defanging Pelosi’s accusations, as France 24’s international affairs commentator Douglas Herbert suggested in a recent news broadcast. “Essentially you’re making a mockery of the charges against you, trying to turn your accusers into fools,” he said. “By speaking publicly about behaviour that your opponents are investigating you for, you try to move the needle of acceptability, make that which your opponents say is absolutely unacceptable, acceptable.” Hislop is not convinced. “I don’t believe that Trump’s actions were consciously planned,” he says. “It’s all instinctive with him so I would guess he just doesn’t see the problem as a problem.”
As the impeachment proceedings began in November, President Trump accused both the testimony of witnesses and the media coverage of being part of a “fake witch hunt”, and “fake news”. “The whole intention of people like Trump and Putin is to accuse everyone else of making fake news, not really on the grounds that people will believe it but on the grounds that they won’t believe anything at all,” says Hislop. “So you get to a stage where people say ‘Oh it’s all fake, it’s all rubbish, maybe he didn’t even make the call.’ Which is the exact opposite of what a clear-cut view of the facts will show you.”
Some commentators have predicted that Pelosi’s gambit could backfire, giving Trump the chance in the run-up to the election to portray himself as a persecuted victim of the establishment fighting back against the system. “I don’t see that happening,” says Hislop. “Firstly, when you’ve been a bully in office it’s difficult to play the victim. And secondly, this is about money and influence. If it was about sex people might start feeling sorry for him, thinking it’s only human – and in the end, with the Clinton impeachment, they started asking questions about the intern and ‘how innocent was she?’, there was somewhere to go with the story. When it comes to money and influence, sympathy is brought into play less clearly.”
If Trump is indeed trying to turn his impeachment into an underdog story, election results in November suggest that the strategy is not gaining much traction yet. The Republicans suffered significant losses in races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Louisiana. In Kentucky, Trump tried to turn Republican governor Matt Bevin’s re-election fight into what the LA Times called “a referendum on the impeachment battle roiling Washington.” Bevin lost. “Even Trump can’t spin those results,” says Hislop. “They’re just losses.”
Should the president be impeached, believes Hislop, it would send a powerful message. “The world is full of leaders like Presidents Putin, Erdogan and Bolsonaro; things are not really going well for liberal democracy,” says Hislop. “Trump has represented the idea that the strongman is okay and everyone will put up with it now. But if the west decides it won’t put up with these sorts of figures and it will revert to a more consensual and rules-bound approach, then that might give us all something to feel optimistic about.”
Ian Hislop is appearing as the special guest at our first Slow Journalism Night of 2020, at which he’ll be discussing the topic ‘Fake news and satire in the age of Trump and Johnson.’
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.