New Delhi: In the past two days, the US has seen some dramatic political developments. The Democratic Party has started an “impeachment inquiry” against President Donald Trump for allegedly asking Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s help to smear Joe Biden who is the Democratic Party front-runner in the 2020 elections.
Pressurised by legislators, the White House decided to release the transcript of Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky — which lies at the heart of this political tussle.
Following this, the Congress also released the whistleblower’s report showing that officials of the Trump administration had tried to “hide Trump Ukrainian call transcript”.
How impeachment works
Impeachment in the US is entirely a political process and the judiciary has absolutely no role in it. The House of Representatives (Lower House) has the sole power to impeach a President and the Senate (Upper House) has the authority to convict and remove one.
The process begins in the House, where the Speaker, as the majority party leader, has the power to launch the impeachment procedure. Then the impeachment inquiry can either be investigated by the House Judiciary Committee or a special panel could be formed to do it.
After the investigation is complete, the committee comes up with “articles” of impeachment — which essentially implies the conclusion of the probe. These articles then have to receive a “simple majority vote” (50 per cent or more) by the committee members, before it is put for voting in the House.
At the House, each article has to receive a simple majority vote for the impeachment to be acted upon. If the articles have received a simple majority by the House, the President has effectively been impeached by the House of Representatives.
Then the process of impeachment moves to the Senate, where trials are held. At the Senate, a two-thirds majority is required to impeach the President.
What do Upper and Lower house numbers look like
To go ahead with an impeachment against Trump, three figures would be important.
Firstly, the House Judiciary Committee currently consists of 24 Democrats and 17 Republicans. And 21 votes are required for the simple majority vote.
Secondly, the House of Representatives currently has a thin Democratic majority. The House consists of 235 Democrats, 198 Republicans, one independent and a vacant seat. The House would need 218 votes for a simple majority.
Lastly, the Senate has a Republican Party majority — whereby the Upper House consists of 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats, and two independents. And 67 votes are required for a 2/3rds Senate majority.
Why Democrats launched an impeachment investigation
This political controversy began when a US intelligence official acted as a whistleblower and submitted a formal complaint against Trump to the Pentagon. According to reports, the accusations on Trump are two-fold.
First, the complaint says that Trump had allegedly asked Ukrainian President Zelensky to investigate the “corrupt” businesses of Biden and his son Hunter. Second, it also says that the Trump government withheld military aid to Ukraine, which had been cleared by the Congress (US parliamentarians), as a leverage to force it to investigate the Bidens.
Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the House majority leader who launched the impeachment investigation against Trump, said the US president had not adhered to his constitutional responsibilities and no one was “above the law”.
“The times have found us today, not to place ourselves in the same category of greatness as our Founders, but to place us in the urgency of protecting and defending our Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic,” remarked Pelosi.
This makes Trump the third American president to face impeachment proceedings. Before him, Andrew Johnson was ‘successfully’ impeached in 1868 and Bill Clinton ‘unsuccessfully’ in 1998.
What released transcript and whistleblower’s report say
Once the aforementioned accusations were made against Trump, the Democrats demanded that the transcript of Trump’s conversation with Zelensky and the whistleblower’s report be made public.
The White House agreed to the first demand and released the transcript of Trump’s phone conversation with Zelensky.
Initially, Trump had maintained that his 30-minute phone conversation with Zelensky was only a courtesy call, where he congratulated the latter after his election. The transcript does mention Trump responding to Zelensky’s offer to buy more US (Javelin) missiles by asking him to do the US a favour.
“We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps. Specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes,” said Zelensky.
To which, Trump had responded saying, “I would like you to do us a favour…” and asks Zelensky to coordinate with the US Attorney General and his personal lawyer, Rudy Guiliani, as well as to reach the “bottom of the” Bidens’ corruption case in Ukraine.
Later during the phone conversation, Trump directly talks about Biden’s son.
“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. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … It sounds horrible to me,” said Trump later in the same conversation.
Soon after, using their powers, the Congress (US Parliament) also released the whistleblower’s report. The whistleblower account accuses Trump of “using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the US 2020 election”.
The declassified report also shows that the Trump administration officials had tried to hide the Trump-Zelensky transcript. It was not stored in the normal computer system, where such conversations are usually stored.
Instead, the transcript was stored in a separate system, which is used for “classified information of an especially sensitive nature”.
How incriminating are these released reports
To begin with, US political analysts argue that there is a very strong sense of quid pro quo in Trump’s conversation with Zelensky.
“Immediately after Zelensky mentions US defence aid, Trump directly asks Zelensky for a “favour,” indicating such aid may be dependent upon Zelensky’s compliance,” writes Natasha Bertrand, Politico’s national security correspondent.
The other issue has been the previously unknown involvement of US’ law enforcement bureaucracy and how it further strengthens the quid pro quo allegation.
“Trump’s suggestion that American law enforcement be directly involved and in contact with Ukraine’s government marks the first evidence that the president personally sought to harness the power of the United States government to further a politically motivated investigation,” notes a report by The New York Times.
Democratic Party leader Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who had already seen the whistleblower’s report said that it “exposed serious wrongdoing”.