Beware of the unfolding Washington drama

With the start of public hearings in the impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, this process has now entered a new phase fraught with political risks for both Democrats and Republicans in the US and which could have a significant impact on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

Let us make it clear that barring some new spectacular revelation about proofs of additional misconduct by Mr Trump, new skeletons coming out of the closet, there is quasi-zero chance that the process will end up with the president being removed from office. Of course, one can expect  that the Democrats dominated House of Representatives will vote at the end of the public hearings for recommending the impeachment of Mr Trump, but then it will be for the Republicans dominated Senate to have the final say. And, as Mr Trump has subjugated the Republican Party to his will, there is no chance that the Upper House will garner the two- thirds majority of votes to oust the president. 

Then where are the risks?

For the Democrats, the issue is that almost nothing that can be said or demonstrated about Mr Trump seems to be able to shake his core base of support – especially the viewers of Fox News and the white evangelical Christians. In fact, according to the latest survey the percentage of them who want Mr Trump to be their candidate in 2020 has even increased. Beyond this hard core of supporters, if the impeachment process fails to remove the president, then the risk is that many people beyond Washington might consider that this was much ado about nothing, to borrow the title of William Shakespeare comedy, and that the Democrats spent a lot of public money and wasted the time of the Legislative branch in an exercise that might be perceived as futile. Add to that the perception spread by Fox News reporting that the whole impeachment process was the expression of the ongoing vendetta of all those who never accepted the victory of Mr Trump, one more expression of the sore loser attitude of the elites against the supposed popular will. This might not help enhance the chances of the candidate in next year’s presidential election.

For the Republicans, the risk is that although their leader will have survived the public hearings, too much will have been exposed about the way Mr Trump has been using and abusing his Oval Office power for personal and partisan advantages that moderate Republican voters, and some percentage of the people who voted for him in 2016 will consider that enough is enough. For many people in the 2016 election it was a matter of “anybody but Hillary Clinton”. In 2020, it might be for the same category of voters a matter of “anybody but Donald Trump”. Although state elections  are of a different nature and trigger different kind of choices for many voters than a presidential election, the  back-to-back defeats of Republican candidates for governor in the states of Kentucky and Louisiana — despite Mr Trump’s active support—cannot but make Republican leaders nervous about what could well be warning signs of a weakening of their base of support.

Beyond the political calculations, one even more important element as the impeachment drama unfolds is the reality it illustrates of a nation more polarised and divided than it has ever been since the war of secession. If one looks at the reporting of the hearings on Fox News and on CNN, one might wonder if these two media are witnessing — and reporting about — the same event and the same testimonies. And it is not just a matter of two news organisations doing their work according to their own ideological or professional standards. It is a question of a national consensus now badly fraying at the seams, of confidence in national institutions and the political system at its lowest level.

This might not be so important if we were not talking here of what still remains the world’s number one superpower. Given the erratic nature of  Mr Trump, his total lack of any kind of strategic vision, there is no trying to predict what kind of move he might be tempted to take if the flow of embarrassing and humiliating revelations of his unbecoming behaviour continues, and if the voices of disgruntled moderate Republicans get louder. He is, for instance, more impatient – or even more desperate – than ever for a trade deal with China that would allow him to tell his core base of support that he is the only US president who has been able to “bend Beijing to his will” — although it is obvious that any such agreement will be a far cry from what his administration was hoping to achieve. And, as the Chinese leaders don’t see any need to oblige him and play along his schedule, he is now threatening to impose new tariffs on Chinese imports. But this kind of approach is definitely not the most relevant one and is in fact counter-productive when dealing with a country fast on its way to becoming the world’s number one economy.

The fact of the matter is that there are no “safe hands” around Mr Trump. So, there is no predicting what a man spending hours watching Fox news and tweeting his moods and frustrations out might be tempted to do as the humiliation of being subjected to an impeachment process goes on — whatever the way this process is described by him and his supporters, whether as a “witch hunt”, as “coup” or a “deep state hoax”. Beware of a besieged, unstable and volatile president. 
The writer is president of Smadja & Smadja, a Strategic Advisory Firm; @ClaudeSmadja

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