On Wednesday, the US House of Representatives will vote to impeach Donald Trump, marking only the third time in the nation’s 243-year history that a president will be impeached. The Democrats’ commanding majority (233-197) in the 435-member House ensures that its vote will prevail even if a couple of its members choose to vote against impeachment. Equally predictably, the Senate, in which the Republicans hold 53 of the 100 seats, will vote not to remove him from office. This foregone conclusion, a symptom of the extreme polarisation of American politics, suggests that the process has been a monumental exercise in futility. This may be true as far as the outcome goes, but the conduct of the impeachment process offers threatened democracies around the world a ringside view of the institutional checks and balances that can be brought to bear on executive power.
As Mr Trump has shown, the US president enjoys enormous powers. It is precisely to ensure that the presidency does not degenerate into a dictatorship or monarchy that the US constitution vested countervailing powers in Congress (the Supreme Court and free press are the other two safeguards). Impeachment is a key Congressional power to call presidents to account for what the founding fathers described as “high crimes and misdemeanors”.
Mr Trump’s withholding of Congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine in return for an investigation by that country’s president into his chief Democratic rival in the 2020 elections, Joe Biden, falls within this definition. This quid pro quo involving taxpayer money for personal electoral gains came to light owing to the revelations of a whistle-blower, prompting the Democrats to launch impeachment proceedings (though they had ample cause to do so before). The striking point about the events of the past few months is the degree of independence and transparency that is hardwired into the process. First, Mr Trump was legally obliged to release a version of the damning transcript of his call with the Ukrainian president. Second, the hearings were televised by the public broadcaster, so the electorate had unfiltered access to information. Third, many officials chose to do their duty and testify even though Mr Trump barred his administration’s officials from cooperating with the investigation (indeed, obstructing Congress is one of the two articles of impeachment). All of them offered damning evidence of presidential abuse of power. None has been transferred or removed from office as a consequence. Most notably, the US Ambassador to the EU and key Trump ally, Gordon Sondland, has suffered no consequence for his sensational admission of a Trump-led quid pro quo deal with Ukraine. The whistle-blower, too, remains protected by legal fiat. It is difficult to envisage an equivalent level of accountability for India’s political executive.
Mr Trump may still be in office next year; he may even win the 2020 elections. But this process will remind him and future occupants of the Oval Office of the limits of their powers — even in the world’s most powerful democracy. In an age when dictatorial democracy is becoming the norm from the Philippines to Europe, this is a reassuring development.