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Bill Emmott: Fears of bumpy road ahead following Trump's impeachment inquiry

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Naoki Watanabe)

Impeachment is the most drastic weapon in the democratic armoury. It represents political battle taking a legal and constitutional channel, but it is high politics nevertheless. So the opening of an impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump needs to be taken very seriously indeed, while recognising that it is public opinion that will give the final verdict.

In South Korea, impeachment succeeded in bringing the presidency of Mrs Park Geun-Hee to an end in 2016 and even sent her to prison the following year. For President Bill Clinton impeachment by the US House of Representatives in 1998 ruined his final two years in office, but he was acquitted by the Senate and remained popular. For President Richard Nixon the opening of impeachment proceedings by the House in 1973-74 and a decision by the US Supreme Court forcing him to release tapes of conversations in the White House were enough to convince him to resign, in the full knowledge that he had lost the support both of his Republican Party and the general public.

It is a fair bet that President Trump believes his impeachment will follow the Clinton example rather than either Park or Nixon. Unlike Bill Clinton, he is only in his first term and so can look forward to final vindication in 2020 by winning re-election. Like his Italian populist precursor, Silvio Berlusconi, who despite many legal battles succeeded in being elected prime minister in 1994, 2001 and again in 2008, Trump is a master at painting himself as a victim of unfair and politically biased opponents.

Yet a better assumption for those of us outside the Trump inner circle is that it is Richard Nixon's case that carries the most relevant lessons. This does not guarantee that Trump will be removed from office. But it gives us a better idea of the likely flow of events during the next several months.

In fact, as things stand now, Trump is in a worse position than Nixon was when impeachment began. In 1973, a clear majority of the American public told opinion pollsters they were opposed to impeachment, and Nixon's party colleagues echoed that sentiment. For Trump, based solely on the revelation of one telephone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, an average of polls taken in the opening days of October showed 51% favoring the impeachment inquiry and only 44% opposed to it.

What the Nixon example showed is that as impeachment hearings proceed, new information emerges. The Ukraine telephone call has become infamous thanks just to one whistleblower and then to a White House official summary of the call which was itself incriminating. A second whistleblower has already been reported as coming forward. The important question now is what else will emerge, as more officials talk, as more documents are forced to be released and as inquiries potentially move on to other cases of alleged misbehaviour.

What this amounts to is an issue of whether Trump's use of his Ukraine call for his personal electoral purposes proves to be part of a pattern or just an isolated incident. The majority in favor of the impeachment inquiry implies that many Americans suspect that this is part of a pattern and want to have that suspicion confirmed or disproved. They feel that Trump poses a question that needs to be answered.

We cannot of course know for sure what the answer will be. But like the American public, it would be right for us to hold suspicions, based on what we have seen and heard since Trump took office in January 2017. The best bet, based on those suspicions, should be that more damaging revelations will come out during the course of the inquiry.

Against that bet should be placed another recent piece of political history. The scandals around Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2017, most particularly concerning Moritomo Gakuen, could have brought him down. The emergence of what could be suspected as a pattern of behavior could have been disastrous. But it wasn't, because Abe was sufficiently popular at the time and because he faced no serious alternative candidate either in his own party or in the opposition.

The United States' political, legal and constitutional systems are arguably more open and more porous than Japan's, but also the political parties are less centralised and less disciplined. This means that unlike the LDP, the Republican Party is more likely to break ranks with President Trump and turn against him, once a sufficient number of senators and representatives decide that supporting him is no longer in their electoral interests.

Although the initial response by Republicans has been to maintain solidarity with their president, this cannot be counted on if more damaging revelations do come out. Republicans are especially sensitive about foreign policy and suspicious of Russia. Trump's threat to withhold military aid to Ukraine, which is needed chiefly to deter Russian interference, has already proven disturbing to many Republicans. If there proves to be a "smoking gun" in future disclosures, it could be one involving conversations between Trump and President Vladimir Putin, which would surely alienate Republicans.

As of now, based on suspicions and the likelihood of further disclosures, the best working assumption must be that the Trump presidency is doomed. He can fight back, of course, and the expectation of further disclosures might prove wrong. Currently, Trump is not sufficiently popular to be able to overcome such scandals, but he has proven himself to be a powerful campaigner. Moreover, we do not yet know whether his Democratic opponent will be strong or weak.

Nevertheless, there are some who are already whispering that the Republican candidate in 2020 may not be Donald Trump at all, but Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was defeated by Barack Obama in 2012 and who has been an early critic of the Ukraine call. An impeachment inquiry may lead the U.S. down many different roads, with unforeseeable consequences. For that reason, we all need to take an open mind, as well as fastening our seat belts for a bumpy ride.

(Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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