The impeachment inquiry under way against President Donald Trump is an important opportunity to “look under the microscope at Trump’s finances, which have largely been a black hole to this point,” says Anthony DiMaggio, a political scientist at Lehigh University. In this interview, DiMaggio — the author of Selling War, Selling Hope and The Politics of Persuasion — examines the history of impeachment in the United States and argues that there is little evidence to suggest the impeachment effort will hurt the Democrats. To the contrary, the inquiry has the potential to expose the many ways in which Trump has improperly profited from his position as president and generate renewed outrage in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
Daniel Falcone: Can you comment on the recent impeachment inquiry and elaborate on the parallels to Watergate?
Anthony DiMaggio: Well, anything I say now is tentative at the beginning of an impeachment inquiry, but there is a disturbing parallel that I would draw between Trump’s scandal-ridden administration and the Richard Nixon regime. The parallel, by the way, isn’t particularly controversial. The Political Science Department at Lehigh University where I teach just hosted Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein for a talk on this very issue. The question I had for Bernstein was whether he saw a link between the two presidencies, particularly in relation to Watergate. Bernstein is no progressive or left radical; he’s a pretty mild-mannered, middle-of-the-road type, and he agreed that there is a disturbing comparison to be drawn.
I would agree with him regarding the ways in which both presidents became targets of a political backlash after their own electoral attacks on the Democratic Party — in the case of Nixon, because of his role in orchestrating the Watergate burglary, which amounted to a de facto declaration of war against the Democrats; and Trump due to his efforts to use the full powers of his office to destroy the electoral prospects of former Vice President Joe Biden. We now know that Trump has pushed Ukraine’s president to come up with dirt on Biden’s son, Hunter, and his supposed use of his father to threaten a Ukrainian prosecutor who was taking legal action against the gas company, Burisma Holdings, for which Hunter Biden was working.
This harassment occurred within days of Trump announcing he was cutting off aid to Ukraine’s government. To hear Trump tell it, Biden intervened as the vice president [in 2016] to remove Ukraine’s prosecutor as a favor to his son, and threatened to withhold billions in aid if the prosecutor was not fired. Biden maintains there was never a quid pro quo that occurred, in the form of a discussion that would amount to extortion or bribery, a point that’s been widely reported recently in the news.
I think more broadly, the important point here is that Trump became the subject of the Democrats’ ire because he’s shown zero restraint in using his office as a shameless electioneering tool to discredit and defeat his opponents. He’s one of the most petty, vicious political figures in American history, and he’s not going to stop until his political adversaries have been demolished.
So, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s initiation of this impeachment inquiry is really a reluctant reaction to Trump’s own belligerence, a point that seems undeniable in light of her long-standing opposition to impeachment. The party feels that their backs are against the wall. If this president is going to use all of his political resources to destroy the Democrats’ 2020 electoral prospects, they really have nothing left to lose by making the next year and a half miserable for Trump by dragging him through the mud and looking under every rock to spotlight not only his electioneering efforts against Biden, but his many conflicts of interest and corrupt business dealings with foreign leaders, which are obvious violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause.
So, we should be perfectly clear about what this impeachment inquiry amounts to: This is a political response to a president who has been quite shameless in making it clear that he will stop at nothing to get re-elected in 2020. Honestly, what did he expect the Democrats to do in this situation?
Trump seemed to both politically and legally survive the Russia probe. How is the Ukrainian situation unique and apart from his potential misdeeds involving Russian oligarchs?
In the “Russiagate” probe, Trump was essentially found to have obstructed justice by seeking to undermine the FBI’s investigation — former FBI Director James Comey’s firing being the most obvious example — into whether he colluded with Russia in their efforts to manipulate the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. That alone is an impeachable offense, and he should have been impeached for it. But at the end of the day, former Special Counsel Robert Mueller was extremely cautious in his conclusions regarding collusion, not recommending that the FBI bring forward charges but not exonerating the president either. This failure to bring charges was taken by Trump as a full exoneration, which I don’t think any honest observer can say in light of the actual language of the Mueller report, and based on Mueller’s own congressional testimony.
The Ukrainian situation is different in that Trump has (from what we know so far) been far blunter and more brazen in his electioneering efforts. In the case of Russiagate, you had some really dubious things the administration was doing. I think these activities showed pretty clearly that Trump and his minions were crooked, even if the FBI didn’t believe their actions rose to the level of criminal conspiracy. I’m thinking specifically of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. and Paul Manafort, chairman of Trump’s 2016 campaign, meeting with a Russian lawyer claiming to be a representative of the Russian government, who promised to provide the Trump campaign with political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
This in and of itself is evidence of attempted collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but it’s not clear that anything of substance came of this meeting in terms of actionable information on Clinton’s campaign, which could then be used to benefit Trump’s campaign. Furthermore, Trump’s own explicit call during the debates for Russia to investigate and expose Clinton’s alleged corruption was of an extremely general nature. What I mean by that is there wasn’t a “smoking gun” of the Watergate variety that linked Trump directly to a planned and implemented conspiracy that involved Russian political actors. In Watergate, Nixon’s own reference to “hush money” to pay off the Watergate burglars was widely considered a smoking gun moment. Bernstein himself admits that without this evidence, the case against Nixon may not have prevailed. So, what this tells us is that the standard for impeachment is extremely high for any effort at impeachment to have a realistic chance of succeeding.
What makes the Ukrainian case different is that we have a direct accounting from a whistleblower that Trump was actively involved in an abuse of power by seeking to pressure a foreign leader into doing his own electoral bidding by going after his primary Democratic competitor in 2020. And Trump has admitted that he did this, although he claims that there was no explicit quid pro quo in his conversations with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that linked U.S. foreign aid to his efforts to get dirt on Biden. But whether Trump explicitly linked the two or not during his conversation with Zelensky is beside the point. To pressure a foreign leader like Trump did, within days of cutting off $391 million in aid, is a blatantly unethical use of the president’s powers in the service of partisan electioneering. And the connection between the two events, even if Trump did not explicitly link them in the conversation with Zelensky, is unlikely to have been lost on Ukraine’s president.
This entire incident is really classic Trump. He’s a master of evasion, deception and manipulation. He routinely engages in all types of unethical behaviors but in such a way that his intentions are communicated indirectly through implication and innuendo, rather than explicitly stated. Then when he gets caught in a deplorable act, he tries to walk it back, claiming that he never really did anything wrong…. Trump is a master gas-lighter. His primary currency is engaging in all sorts of unethical behaviors but doing so under supposedly “veiled” terms, to shield himself from accountability or punishment. So, I was unsurprised that the now declassified transcript of the phone conversation between Zelensky and Trump doesn’t contain an explicit tit-for-tat exchange, in which Trump says, “I will give you aid in exchange for investigating Biden.”
Instead, what the conversation reveals is that Zelensky pushed for U.S. aid, while Trump simultaneously pushed for the Biden investigation. These two scenarios aren’t exactly the same, but they’re as close as you can get to a distinction without a difference. Ultimately, whether Trump spelled out his attempted bribery in the kind of terms you would find in a two-bit Rod Blagojevich FBI recording is irrelevant. This president has demonstrated in his actions that he can’t be trusted to separate his responsibilities as president from his blatant electoral extortion schemes.
How do you compare this inquiry to the only [other] two impeachment proceedings in U.S. history?
I think the case of the planned impeachment of Nixon is far and away the most relevant comparison, when we talk about impeachment parallels, as I already mentioned above. Andrew Johnson’s impeachment — although he was never removed from the presidency — demonstrated that impeachment is a political act, rather than a criminal matter. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion on this, since people think about the language in the Constitution, which talks in grand terms of about impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But when the House brings forward articles of impeachment, and the Senate tries a case, they are engaged in political acts that are meant simply to decide whether the president will remain in office or not. This is not in and of itself a criminal proceeding; it’s a political one. And that’s undeniable when looking at Johnson’s case. He was impeached for opposing the Republican Party’s “radical” Reconstruction agenda in following the end of the Civil War, which sought to provide basic legal rights to former slaves.
A number of the charges brought against Johnson, while not directly related to his opposition to Reconstruction, were simply charges of convenience that involved political transgressions (not criminal ones). He was essentially charged with being a jerk, by making some not-so-nice comments in various speeches against members of Congress. Other impeachment charges related to his firing of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; his appointing of a new secretary, which he did without the Senate’s approval; and his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, which prohibited a president from removing appointed officials without Senate authorization.
There also isn’t much of a comparison in my mind between Trump’s and Bill Clinton’s impeachment cases. The constitutional “crime” for which Clinton was charged was lying to Congress about receiving oral sex. I don’t want to trivialize Clinton’s culpability as a sexual predator…. But I think the actual impeachment charge for lying to Congress about oral sex, in a consensual sexual encounter, pales in comparison to Trump’s own actions, as he has openly bragged about engaging in sexual assault against women. For this, Trump should never have been elected president. And since Trump openly brags about engaging in it, sexual assault should be added to the list of charges against him in any impeachment campaign.
I realize that you may want to steer clear of predictions regarding Trump’s fate, but what do you see coming of this? And ultimately, will the reward outweigh the risk on the part of the Democratic establishment?
I’m not going to hold my breath for Trump’s removal via conviction on impeachment-related charges, because realistically, there is little chance that Republicans in the Senate will vote to remove this president. There has never been a successful vote to remove a president in U.S. history. Nixon came the closest, but he resigned before impeachment. I hope I’m wrong, and evidence is brought forward against Trump that’s of such a damning nature that Republicans can’t sit with their heads buried in the sand any longer without risking their own electoral futures. But I doubt it.
As I see it, what this impeachment inquiry is really about is setting up the terms of discourse and debate moving into the 2020 electoral race. The Democrats will be “fully loaded” in terms of the many corruption charges they are going to publicize against Trump. So, I think that progressives need to support the impeachment inquiry, even if the primary reason cited for it is relatively trivial compared to Trump’s far greater crimes. The stakes are too high to let this president get re-elected, and an impeachment inquiry could help to discredit his re-election prospects for 2020.
This inquiry is an opportunity to look under the microscope at Trump’s finances, which have largely been a black hole to this point. There is an opportunity to identify the many ways in which he has improperly profited from his position as president, in relation to his real estate and hotel holdings, and as related to his profits from those endeavors.
It’s an open secret in Washington that even Trump himself hasn’t bothered to keep track of what may amount to millions in profits he has made from foreign leaders in relation to extremely secretive real estate investing and from his hotel business, because he doesn’t even see the issue as worthy of inquiry. Trump claims he donates the proceeds from his hotel profits made from foreign leaders so there is no conflict of interest. But this promise is a farce on its face. The amount he has donated is far less than the actual profits estimated that he has received from foreign leaders. Furthermore, his real estate investments and profits, amounting to $35 million in 2017 alone, are explicitly being pursued via dummy shell corporations, so as to hide the identities of investors seeking to avoid public attention and scrutiny. A serious inquiry into his real estate profits and into all the foreign leaders who he has profited from at his hotels will likely reveal that he’s been significantly underestimating the profits he makes from foreign leaders, since he only accounts for profits from transactions with foreign officials that are self-declared.
He cares so little about basic integrity and avoiding conflicts of interest that he hasn’t bothered to tally up how much money he’s making from these transactions. So, the only way to account for his shady dealings and investments is through an open and comprehensive forensic accounting of his business records. This kind of inquiry is not going to happen overnight, and pertinent details could very well take a year or longer to be revealed. But the alternative is to allow this president to operate with impunity in his shameless profiteering efforts. This profiteering has continued throughout his presidency, a blatant violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which states that presidents can’t profit from business interactions with foreign leaders and governments.
How can the progressive left stay focused on issues without yielding too much interest and preoccupation with the liberal pursuit of Trump? In other words, must committed leftists prioritize this inquiry even when citing the liberal establishment opportunism?
I don’t think it can, realistically speaking. The old saying is that politics makes strange bedfellows. The reality is that Pelosi represents the public face of power for the Democratic Party, at least as we speak, and that won’t change, short of the election of a progressive New Deal-style candidate of the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren variety. So, for better or worse, this is the current institutional path we are on, and we will have to accept that if we want to see a case built against this president via an impeachment inquiry.
I understand the distrust of — and contempt for — Pelosi and her neoliberal allies in the Democratic Party. They’ve done nothing to earn the public trust, and have for decades sold out working-class Americans via their assault on the welfare state, their militaristic foreign policies, their support for unbridled corporate bailouts and business power, their endorsement of “free trade” agreements that have harmed working Americans, and their complete failure to address the rising threat of climate change. Having said all that, we as progressives have to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time…. This impeachment inquiry is an opportunity to build a case against one of the most blatantly plutocratic, corrupt and fascistic political figures in American history, and we’d be fools to oppose it.
I should point out, I “get it” that this is a criminal presidency that has engaged in far worse transgressions than simply leaning on a foreign leader for electoral purposes. And it speaks very poorly of the Democratic Party’s leadership that they can’t recognize this obvious point. Trump’s ecocidal contempt for basic notions of sustainability — via his efforts to prop up fossil fuel technologies at the expense of conservation, renewables and efforts to combat climate change — represent an existential threat to human survival. This is well-known by anyone with even minimal knowledge of the scientific consensus on climate change. I bring this point up because, while any rational person knows Trump’s crimes extend to far worse behavior than leaning on Ukraine’s president, we also know that there is zero chance of Trump being impeached for his ecological crimes. So that puts progressives in a difficult position; we have to take what we can get in terms of building a case for removing this president.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.