The hottest trending story in the US is as bizarre as it could possibly get. The president of the most powerful country on earth has been accused of using aid in dollars and cents to wheedle or pressure a foreign government to provide information against a political opponent. Or so it is alleged by a whistleblower from the intelligence community, who in a fit of apparent outrage, decided to go up the ladder and formally lodge a complaint against the most powerful man in the country. It couldn't happen anywhere else but in the US. Certainly, it's beyond unimaginable in India.
The facts are simple enough, although explosive. The whistleblower's unclassified letter released to the public, accuses the President Donald Trump of having made a phone call on 25 July to the Ukrainian government — using the carrot of a White House visit as well as military aid, to pressure Kiev to release information on Burisma, a Ukraine based energy company that once employed presidential-hopeful Joe Biden's son on its board. Notably, the president's phone call was made in the presence of at least half a dozen persons, probably including those in the situation room.
As Trump himself observed, it would have been extraordinarily foolish to have discussed an issue potentially useful to his re-election campaign, in such a public manner. There's more. The whistleblower's letter also mentions that the president wanted information related to the sordid story of alleged Russian interference in US elections, the whole of which it now seems, originated from Ukraine. The White House wants the servers. That could potentially expose a conspiracy of vast proportions. This latter aspect seems to be underemphasised in a media that has always had the knives out for the president.
The basis for formal impeachment is that the president had used not only the White House, but also the State Department, the attorney-general's office and US taxpayer money to ensure a crippling of his opponents. At first glance, it should be a linear — though searing — process, where after due investigations, the errant Head of State would be impeached, followed possibly by trial in a civil court. But in the increasingly murky world of Washington politics, it's far more complicated, particularly since the president has been trying to goad the Opposition Democrats into just such a step for months.
With election season kicking off, the street-smart president is aware that an impeachment process would probably benefit him. Voters are unlikely to be very interested in a scandal that seems immeasurably complicated, besides not affecting their concerns on employment, immigration and the economy in the least. In addition, a hugely negative media blitz has already fed into Trump's narrative of a victimised Head of State trying his best to punish massive corruption particularly within the Democratic party. An impeachment will only strengthen this narrative, as the Democrats know full well. That's why they've been dragging their feet for months as the president continued his highly unorthodox methods of policymaking.
But it seems that the spate of evidence now coming out has convinced political opponents that the time is ripe to spring. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the initiation of proceedings, and the White House has already been subpoenaed by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Even as this process starts, fresh and extremely damaging evidence has emerged, in the form of text messages between various US officials discussing the whole sequence of events, including the president's direct order to put a hold on military aid to Ukraine and its possible connection to the pressure being brought to bear on Kiev.
US military aid has been a feature of bilateral relations since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, but was upped after Russia entered Crimea in 2014. However, the text messages are far from clinching evidence, since they centre around speculation about unfolding events rather than an affirmation. Clearly the case against the president needed more weight. Unsurprisingly, a second whistleblower has now emerged, also from the intelligence community, and apparently able to bolster the earlier evidence based largely on hearsay. In other words, the position of the intelligence community is being strengthened. Trump's dislike of being corralled by his intelligence chiefs with daily briefings, and his apparent disdain for intelligence sensitivity, is well known, and it's no secret that the intelligence community has been tearing its hair out by the roots for months.
The president is however made of sterner stuff. His latest challenge has been to publicly request China to provide evidence against the Bidens — father and son — on charges similar to those levied in the case of Ukraine. This public calling upon a foreign power for assistance would be staggering, except that Trump has done this before. In a 2016 television interview, he called upon Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's email, following which Russian hackers promptly obliged.
The calculation — similar again to the strategy of the phone call — seems to be that anything done so publicly would hardly qualify as a political conspiracy. And the public is likely to believe him. That may explain why the impeachment process is proceeding in a somewhat less-than-traditional manner. Pelosi has sidestepped the process of a vote in the full House, instead using the existing investigations by six committees as being under the umbrella of an impeachment inquiry. This allows room for the White House to stonewall, and refuse to provide documents pending a full House vote.
In any format, it's a long and arduous procedure, fraught with differences on how to interpret the charge of 'high crimes and misdemeanours' that have to be proved. Meanwhile the whole process will run straight into the election season, and allow full media play by a president who is far more comfortable with this medium than his opponents. Biden's performance so far has made him seem overly cautious and defeatist.
Whatever the outcome, the whole process will damage the credibility of the presidency, not just within the country but outside.
US influence is shrinking, even though it still remains the power with the most potential clout. With Delhi apparently casting its lot with the 'Trump sarkar', the fortunes of one of the most unconventional presidents in US history will determine whether India affably hosts the Chinese president at the 'informal meet' in Mamallapuram this week, or whether it ramps up military exercises such as those taking place in Arunachal Pradesh.
More likely, it will be both. In this and other issues, there is a realisation that any future President of the United States will have to confront certain ground realities in American foreign and domestic policy, and the fact that India is a reasonably substantial player in both. Keep in mind that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. As the masala of the Trump impeachment attempt gets more pungent, and the media stirs the pot, Delhi only has to ensure that its own overly enthusiastic public backing of Trump is watered down with appropriate diplomatic overtures.
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Updated Date: Oct 08, 2019 10:27:45 IST