So, the impeachment process in the US has commenced against President Donald Trump. In purely local interests – and forgiving the great constitutional issues involved –what does this mean for NZ and the prospects of a free trade agreement?.
Why? Because the great organs of the US state grind on. The president remains in the White House, all Cabinet officials remain in office, NZ’s trade guru Vangelis Vitalis is on his way.
At Monday’s meeting with Trump in New York, PM Jacinda Adern reaffirmed NZ’s strong preference for an FTA and this was not denied by President Trump, nor by the Vice President, Mike Pence, a political pal of Foreign Minister Winston Peters in the presence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
To rehearse for a moment: this meeting, for a New Zealand PM, is unrivalled in recent decades.
So, the ship of States sails on.
Now back to impeachment. What does this mean?
Here’s the best we can assess:
Impeachment means that Congress thinks the president is no longer fit to serve and should be removed from office. The Constitution says the president, vice president and all civil officers shall be removed from office on Impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery of “other high crimes and misdemeanours”.
Congress can impeach the president, specifically, the House of Representatives. Under the framework of the Constitution, the House can vote to impeach a president for “high crimes and misdemeanours.”
It’s up to the House to decide what that means.
But impeaching the president is not the same thing as removing the president from office. For that, the Senate holds a trial presided over by the chief justice of the United States.
Two presidents in American history have been impeached – Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. One resigned under threat of impeachment – Richard Nixon.
None has been actually removed from office.
What is an impeachment inquiry?
It’s the first step in the impeachment process. It means lawmakers will investigate what, if any, “high crimes and misdemeanours” the president may have committed.
Six key House committees will continue to investigate Trump “under that umbrella of impeachment inquiry.” If investigations conclude there are reasons for impeachment, the Judiciary Committee will draw up articles and this committee, then the full House, will vote.
Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said, when he decided his committee was launching an impeachment inquiry:
“We are investigating all the evidence, gathering the evidence. At the conclusion – hopefully by the end of the year – we will vote articles of impeachment – or we won’t”.
Latest count suggests least 218 House Democrats support, which is more than two-thirds of all House Democrats. That number is potentially significant because it takes 218 votes in the House to pass something.
Not all of those 200-plus Democrats might vote for impeachment, though. It depends on what evidence the inquiry turns up.
Since Congress came back from recess in September, the number of House Democrats who support an inquiry has ticked up by the week, sometimes by the day, and now, with the allegations Trump pressured Ukraine to help his re-election, by the hour. In the day before and on the day of Nancy Pelosi’s embrace of it Tuesday, 57 House Democrats on the fence came out in support of an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
How long does the impeachment process take?
It is a moveable feast. Democrats probably are on a tight timeline; politically, it could be much more difficult to make their case that impeachment is necessary in 2020, election year, an election in which Trump could be defeated. A recent poll suggests 57% Americans don’t support impeachment.
Will the Senate remove Trump from office? Possibly but probably not. Soundings suggest the Republican-controlled Senate won’t confront Trump.
Last night many Senators defended him. It’s up to House Democrats to uncover something that could change Republicans’ minds.
If the Senate leader decides not to proceed with a trial, then we move into uncharted waters. House leader Senator Mitch McConnell, a devoted Trump supporter, might face a challenge from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
For centuries, the agreed-upon reading of the Constitution is that if the House impeaches a president, the Senate holds a trial to convict or acquit the president.
Even if he is impeached by the House and removed from office, this will present a serious Constitutional challenge because it has never happened before. The important point here is that Trump would want to stay in office as long as possible, since the moment he leaves office he remains exposed to judicial actions as outlined in the findings of Robert Mueller, none of which are appealing.
All of which makes the New Zealand constitutional and Parliamentary arrangements seem agreeably acceptable.
A written constitution (pace Sir Geoffrey Palmer) anyone?