Lessons from Trump impeachment

Efforts launched by members of the Democratic majority in the United States Congress to impeach President Donald Trump and possibly remove him from office are still at an early stage. However, there are already lessons in democratic practice for Nigeria and other African countries to learn from.

Donald Trump has been the most controversial American President in recent times. His antecedents as a reality tv producer, his mannerisms, his language, his sidestepping many filters to communicate with the public directly through Twitter, his combative attitude towards the media and political opponents, his divisive politics, his suspected racism, his whimsical decision-making including in foreign and defence policy, as well as  his many other personal and political attributes all suggest that his presidency is a disaster waiting to happen.

Yet, it is one seemingly small event that suddenly brought matters to a head and led to the launching of formal impeachment inquiry against President Trump by the House of Representatives leadership, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi on 24 September. It turned out that last July, President Trump issued instructions withholding $392m in military aid from Ukraine. A week later on July 25, Trump spoke with Ukraine’s new president Vlodimir Zelenskiy on the phone. In the phone call, details of which became public weeks later, Trump asked Zelenskiy to “do me a favour” and order a probe into a dealing that former US Vice President Joseph Biden and his son, Hunter had with a Ukrainian energy company. Previous probe found that the Bidens did nothing wrong but Trump is keen to find some scandal, since Biden is the leading Democrat likely to challenge him in next year’s presidential elections.

This might seem like a small matter by Third World standards but for US Congressmen and many American legal scholars, it constitutes the high crimes and misdemeanor that the US Constitution prescribes as grounds for impeaching the president. To invite a foreign government to interfere in their elections is a very serious matter. It is a lesson that we need to learn as we perfect our democratic practice, that an incumbent is not at liberty to use state powers in order to confer personal political advantages on himself.

A second lesson in the unfolding American scenario is the whistle blower. In recent years the idea of whistle blowing has been popularised in Nigeria, but only to reveal fraud and financial malpractice. In August however, a government official suspected to be a CIA agent blew the whistle that White House officials tried to hide the Trump-Zelenskiy phone transcript in a server meant for national security, another serious offence in their own system. Chairman of the House intelligence committee then issued a subpoena which forced Joseph Maguire, the acting Director of National Intelligence, to hand over the complaint.

The White House was then forced to release a “rough” transcript of the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call, which confirmed to most observers that Trump indeed sought foreign help to probe Biden and his son. That the White House had to release such damning evidence against itself was another lesson for us. Here, officials could easily destroy this evidence rather than and it over, but back in 1974 it was the 18-and-a-half-minute tape erasure that helped to bring down President Richard Nixon.

Other lessons in the ongoing saga include the sudden resignation of US Ambassador to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who also handed over phone records that indicated that indeed, he and other US officials discussed Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine as a quid pro quo for probing the Bidens. Impeachment is a two-step process in the US. while Congress may vote to impeach Mr. Trump on some articles of impeachment, it requires a Senate trial, and a conviction by a two-thirds majority of senators, to remove him from office. That process could last months but we have already learned some useful lessons in the ongoing American impeachment saga.

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