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Donald Trump is unfit for office – but don't bet on him being impeached

With an 80 per cent approval rating with Republican voters, the President will be difficult to dislodge through any means other than the ballot box.

Less than 60 days into Donald Trump’s unpredicted – and unpredictable – presidency, impeachment is fast becoming the top topic of conversation here in Washington, DC. Wherever I go, whomever I talk to, the conversation ends with one question: can this unqualified, unhinged narcissist last the full four years?

From left-wingers such as the film-maker Michael Moore to right-wingers such as the conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks, the pundits are counting down the days until impeachment hearings begin. Professor Allan Lichtman of American University, who has correctly forecast every presidential election result since 1984, including Trump’s, is now predicting that the president will be removed from office over his alleged ties to Russia.

I’m not convinced. Talk of impeachment seems like a liberal fantasy of the highest order. No president of the United States has been charged, convicted and forced out of office. Andrew Johnson (1865-69) and Bill Clinton (1993-2001) were both impeached by the House of Representatives but then acquitted by trials in the Senate; Article II, Section 4 of the US constitution gives the House the sole power to impeach but the Senate the sole power to convict. It also lists impeachable offences as “treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanours” – without defining what constitutes a “high crime” or “misdemeanour”. Speaking in 1970, Gerald Ford – who, ironically, went on to serve as president after Richard Nixon resigned from office to avoid near-certain impeachment – said: “An impeachable offence is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”

This perhaps is the overarching reason why Trump can carry on golfing at Mar-a-Lago without a care in the world: there is no appetite for impeachment where it matters most. The president’s party controls the House of Representatives and, thanks to a combination of brazen gerrymandering and attempts at voter suppression, will probably still command a majority in the House even after the November 2018 midterms. As for the Senate, again the Republicans are in control, with a majority of four and with Senate Democrats, come 2018, having to defend seats in five “ruby-red” states where Trump won by double-digit margins.

If you think the radicalised Republicans on Capitol Hill, who at every stage of the campaign put party before country and who are now on the verge of taking control of the Supreme Court, rolling back abortion rights and passing tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, are going to impeach the man who made all this happen for them and did what their last two presidential candidates couldn’t, I have a Trump Tower to sell you.

Despite Trump’s manifest unfitness for the highest office in the land, his opponents on the right have proved to be few and far between. Take Jason Chaffetz. After the now-notorious recording of Trump bragging about sexual assault emerged last October, Chaffetz, the GOP chair of the House oversight committee, who had spent years hounding Hillary Clinton over her emails, withdrew his endorsement of his party’s candidate. He said he couldn’t look his teenage daughter “in the eye”. Yet the following month, he fell back into line and announced he’d be voting for . . . Trump. Is this the kind of Republican legislator you think has the backbone to vote for impeachment?

Then there are the Senate Republicans, supposedly the grown-ups of the party. Asked by the New York Times last month how long he and his colleagues would tolerate Trump’s crazy conspiracies and bizarre behaviour, Senator John Cornyn, the
Republican whip, replied bluntly: “As long as we’re able to get things done.” The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, said there was “a high level of satisfaction” with Trump and that Republican senators weren’t bothered by “the daily tweets”.

You may be repulsed by their cynicism but you have to admire their chutzpah. Even mild critics within the GOP, such as John McCain, whom Trump publicly ridiculed for being captured by the Vietcong, told the Times that “we can get a lot done with the people around him”. Ted Cruz, whose wife Trump once mocked, tweeting that she was ugly, took his wife with him to a family dinner with the president at the White House early this month. Is there any Trumpian humiliation these people will not forgive, forget or brush under the Oval Office carpet?

“It’s hard for me to imagine President Trump committing any offence so egregious that Republicans in Congress would consider it impeachable in the current political climate,” McKay Coppins, the author of The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, tells me. “Any GOP lawmaker to break ranks with the rest of the party and call for impeachment would almost surely suffer the consequences at the ballot box.”

Remember: Trump may have entered office in January as the least popular president of the modern era but he still has an 80 per cent approval rating with Republican voters. This dynamic might change, Coppins says, “but it would take a pretty serious crime on Trump’s part, complete with some sort of undeniable smoking gun” and it would also require “influential elements of the conservative media to turn on the president”.

For now, obsessing over impeachment is a dangerous distraction from the biggest challenge of all: resisting not just Trump’s hard-right policy agenda but the normalisation of his politics of hate, bigotry and “alternative facts” over the next four years. The reality is that the only way to remove Trump from office is the old-fashioned way: to beat him at the ballot box – again.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.