I’m really quite tired of the stream of hysterical Guardian articles asking whether this time he will actually be removed’ …were the words of my housemate as we entered another turbulent week in US politics.
To be fair, his rather dismissive and uninterested tone is not without basis. I think on some level almost everyone is exasperated with the constant barrage of firestorms emanating from Washington D.C. Wave after wave, news cycle after news cycle, tweet after tweet, the Trump Presidency has obliterated everything in its path that had once resembled an institutional norm and has cut deep through the existing divisions in American society like a knife through butter.
Saturated with scandal and exhausted by anger, anyone on either side of the Atlantic could be forgiven for feeling just a little indifferent to the latest White House drama. Therefore, I embark on the task of writing this knowing full well that it may fall onto justifiably apathetic ears. Nonetheless, I will endeavour to explain, as painlessly possible, why this current outrage is different and why it is the one to pay attention to.
To explain the current crisis, one must hark back to a previous American headache, the delivery and testimony of the Mueller report. This was the almost two-year inquiry, which investigated Russian interference in to the 2016 US election: contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government and President Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice by impeding said investigation.
While the report concluded definitively that, a foreign adversarial government successfully interfered in the election but that Trump himself did not collude with the Russians, it provided little clarity on the obstruction question. Thus, the report fell beneath the cracks of America’s ever deepening partisan chasm and President Trump declared himself vindicated.
Fast forward to July 25th, two days after Robert Mueller’s Congressional testimony, Trump makes a call to the newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky. On the call, Trump asks whether Zelensky could do him a favour by investigating Ukraine’s role in the 2016 election, as well as the family of Trump’s most prominent political opponent for 2020, Joe Biden. We know these facts to be true from the White House’s own collated notes of the conversation, as well as a complaint from an anonymous intelligence community whistleblower who brought the call to Congressional and public attention. It is this call which forms ground zero of the current impeachment enquiry, launched by House Democrats.
For the President’s detractors, Trump’s actions are seen as problematic since US law explicitly bans the soliciting of help from foreign governments for electoral purposes. Moreover, they point to the administrations withholding of £316 million in military aid to Ukraine as further evidence of a ‘quid pro quo’, whereby the aid (and a potential state visit) became conditional on Zelensky cooperating with a corruption investigation, intending to ‘dig up dirt’ on Biden.
So why is this crisis anymore significant from the ones which have characterised the Trump presidency from day one? Firstly, Democrats in the House of Representatives have opened an impeachment enquiry into the President. Whereas the Mueller Report only served to divide the opposition on the impeachment question, the Trump-Ukraine affair has united the Democratic leadership and base behind a common goal. However, by no means will this result in Trump being removed from office.
Secondly, the Mueller investigation was incompatible with the modern characteristics of America’s media landscape. It dripped and drabbed indictments for two long years, made complex twists and turns, left many ends of string untied and did not produce the blockbuster Hollywood finale needed to inspire the imaginations of the 24-hour cable news bingers. In a nutshell, it was the final episode of Game of Thrones. To an extent, this muffled its ability to move the needle of public opinion on issues such as impeachment.
The call at the centre of the Ukrainian affair on the other hand, acts as a short and concise document which is easy to access and understand. Unlike the Mueller report, which was full of legalistic language and heavily redacted content, the phone call can be effectively communicated by the media and its content weaponised by both sides.
Finally, even if this phone call is not considered a smoking gun, there may be more in existence that does constitute the final straw which breaks the camel’s back. As well as correctly explaining the contents of the Zelensky phone call, the whistle-blower also claimed there were multiple other phone calls that Trump made to international leaders that equally alarmed White House staff.
As has now been reported by multiple news organisations, White House lawyers logged these calls in a top-secret database which is usually used to protect highly classified government secrets including further sensitive phone conversations with China, Saudi Arabia and potentially Russia, now all stored in this computer.
The White House is likely to fight tooth and nail to prevent these transcripts from ever seeing the light of day, regardless of whether they contain any incriminating information. However, just as the presence of secret White House tapes triggered the beginning of the end for Nixon, the presence of this top secret computer and the questions surrounding its use could at last, spell trouble for Trump.
Image source: The Economist