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US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump
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Impeachment: The Theatre of the Absurd

Impeachment could begin by Christmas but the arithmetic is in Trump’s favour

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

The drama that is unfolding in Washington these days belongs to the Theatre of the Absurd, “a form of drama that emphasizes the absurdity of human existence by employing disjointed, repetitious, and meaningless dialogue, purposeless and confusing situations, and plots that lack realistic or logical development.”

All characters are fully aware of the outcome, but they pretend that what they do is aimed at saving democracy, propriety, national security and the highest standards of Presidential behaviour.

In the process, the worst form of international behaviour, breach of trust, quid pro quo for international assistance and efforts to cover up these activities have come to the surface. The impeachment drama will only serve to expose the absurdities of the system that will discredit the United States.

Some years ago, the same theatre of the absurd was played out in Washington on account of the Lewinsky affair, which led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Although the facts were unearthed in their salacious best, it was known that Clinton would survive the impeachment and also remain a global figure even after his Presidency.

The money and effort spent and the disgrace heaped on Clinton turned out to be of no value. What mattered was the arithmetic of the seats held by the Democrats and the Republicans in the Senate.

Clinton considered the impeachment proceedings as a distraction and got away by saying that he had much more important things to do. A little dalliance with a young intern was not of much concern to him. Actually, the majority of the Americans felt the same way and viewed the affair as a bit of pornography which the Star Report provided.

Initially the Democrats were not particularly keen to impeach the President, as it was considered a waste of time, though there were grave issues that qualified for an impeachment enquiry.

But the revelation that President Trump had tried to force the President of Ukraine to discredit the Democratic candidate Joe Biden, by investigating him and his son, it was too much for the Democrats to accept. They came to the judgement that even if the President was not removed, offering a quid pro quo in terms of foreign assistance to Ukraine would be considered serious enough to damage the President’s credibility and reputation.

The revelations that have come out at the hearings have surprised the Democrats themselves. The number of former Trump loyalists who came out to testify against the President grew day by day and even the former National Security Adviser John Bolton was expected to speak out.

The New York Times began publishing an impeachment briefing every day to meet the demand for the details of the hearing.

The testimony of Gordon Sondland, Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union marked a turning point in the hearings. Sondland had earlier given a closed-door deposition to the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment inquiry into Trump.

Last week, in public, he set out to clarify the “bigger picture” on Ukraine. He explained, “We followed the President’s orders” while carrying out a wide-ranging effort to strong-arm Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, into aiding Trump’s reelection.

Was there a quid pro quo? “The answer is yes,” Sondland declared. His remarks were replete with such lines that will resonate in posterity. A comment of his jolted Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Everyone was in the loop.”

Pence and Pompeo had sought to evade accountability in the Ukraine affair. Pompeo is reportedly considering a Senate run in Kansas next year; both men are seen as eventual contenders for a Republican Presidential nomination.

Since September, as many Trump supporters began to leave the sinking ship, Pompeo and Pence addressed the Ukraine matter tersely, protected in part by White House stonewalling of House subpoenas for documents and testimony. Sondland’s appearance exposed their attempts at political finesse and outright deception.

Sondland is a man who made a fortune in hotels and donated a million dollars to Trump’s inaugural committee before the President appointed him to the ambassadorship.

In that role, he joined the Administration’s attempt, earlier this year, to persuade Zelensky to announce investigations into former Vice-President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter and also into supposed cooperation between the Democrats and Ukraine during the 2016 campaign.

Hunter Biden served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, when his father was Vice-President; both Bidens denied any wrongdoing characterising the Ukrainian electoral interference as a “fictional narrative.”

To undermine the Democrats, Trump had asked Sondland to work with his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Sondland duly attended meetings with Zelensky, while coordinating with the US Embassy in Kiev and the White House.

Throughout, his boss at the State Department, Pompeo, “knew what we were doing and why,” Sondland testified. Sondland provided new evidence—excerpts from four e-mails that he wrote to Pompeo and others between July and September—which showed that he kept Pompeo updated on the back-channel operation.

Beginning in July, the Administration withheld hundreds of millions of dollars in Congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. Several diplomats and other officials have testified in the inquiry that the suspension was designed to coerce Zelensky; Sondland’s e-mail excerpts suggest that Pompeo may have been briefed on this part of the pressure campaign.

Sondland also testified about Pence’s role—in particular, about a meeting that he and Pence had with Zelensky on September 01, in Warsaw. At the time, Pence told reporters that the aid was being held up because of “great concerns” that he and Trump had about “issues of corruption,” but he offered no specifics.

Pence had denied publicly that the delay had anything to do with Trump’s reelection bid. Sondland’s testimony undercut that assertion; he recalled that he “mentioned” to Pence in Warsaw that he “had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations” into Trump’s domestic opponents. Pence’s chief of staff had denied that this conversation took place.

The Republican Party, because of its capitulation to Trump, is headed for a moral and political accounting. The President’s racketeering scheme in Ukraine is likely to inflict lasting damage on the reputations of all those at high levels of his administration who have participated or stood by mutely.

Witness by witness, the case for Trump’s impeachment is strengthening. Yet the political equation in Washington remains at a stalemate because of the known arithmetic on the Hill.

If the Democratic-controlled House does impeach the President, the Republican-controlled Senate still looks set to acquit him. The Ukraine dossier - and all that it continues to reveal about Trump’s indifference to the Constitution - seems headed for the voters in the next election.

The verdict of the people will be known precisely a year from now. The best hope of the Democrats is that the discredited President Trump will crumble in the fire of public rage.

The latest is that a federal judge has decided that former White House counsel Don McGahn must testify to the House in its impeachment probe on the argument that “the witnesses who have defied Congress at the behest of the President will have to decide whether their duty is to the country, or to a President who believes that he is above the law.”

The House Intelligence Committee and two other panels are working on a report that could be the basis of articles of impeachment. Democratic sources say the House could possibly vote to impeach President Trump by Christmas.

Once the current theatre of the absurd concludes, both the parties will focus on the elections. No credible Democratic candidate has emerged even after the first round of debates and Republicans are stuck with the incumbent.

The battle will remain wide open even after the impeachment.