With a new scandal rocking the White House and a formal impeachment inquiry underway in the House, President Trump’s self-serving illegal behavior is once again at the center of our political universe. Two huge questions now loom over Congress, and House Democrats in particular: Do the facts about Trump’s actions warrant impeachment, and how will voters react as the process plays out?
These questions have led to a broader discussion of impeachment itself. Impeachment is not a criminal process, but a political one that allows Congress to hold the president accountable for abuses of power and breaches of the public trust, namely “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” according to the Constitution. This does not necessarily require breaking criminal laws.
In this case, Trump stands accused of the kind of behavior he is known for: putting his political ambitions ahead of the national interest and then lying about it. Calls for impeachment began shortly after he entered office, but the whistleblower complaint detailing Trump’s efforts to pressure a foreign government to investigate a political rival and the alleged cover-up was the straw that broke the camel’s back for what is now a majority of House Democrats. Why this “art-of-the-deal” blunder, and why now?
Critics point out that the latest scandal is far from Trump’s most harmful escapade. Trump’s record is full of controversies on the international stage, and unlike his now-infamous phone call with the Ukrainian leader, many of them are drenched in blood. His administration has backed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen’s brutal war, and the U.N. has said the U.S., Britain and France may be complicit with war crimes committed against civilians there. Trump defended the Saudi crown even as it become increasingly clear that orders to kidnap, kill and dismember James Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who wrote for the Washington Post, came from the top of the royal government.
Then there is the carnage of Trump’s military. U.S. airstrikes and attacks have contributed to a spike in civilian casualties in Afghanistan, where a U.S. drone strike reportedly killed at least 30 civilian farmers resting in a field earlier this month. Earlier this year, the U.N. warned that the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria was responsible for a high number of civilian casualties and may be guilty of war crimes.
Of course, Trump did not initiate the U.S.’s involvement in these conflicts, but he is the military’s commander-in-chief. He frequently boasts about U.S. military might, and his saber-rattling has stoked fears that the U.S. could plunge into war with both Iran and Venezuela. His decision to back out of the Iran nuclear deal and place “maximum pressure” on Iran and its economy has only heightened tensions with the major oil producer, and brought us to the brink of war.
Is attempting to coerce a foreign government with U.S. aid, as Trump is accused of doing, really more significant than all the bloody violence that comes with belligerent foreign policy? War is deadly and destructive; U.S. invasions and occupations have taken hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more in recent decades. One 2018 study estimates that the War on Terror alone is directly responsible for about half a million deaths, including thousands of U.S. soldiers.
“That’s what’s at stake here: Human lives are at stake, both at home and abroad,” said Francis Boyle, a professor of international law at Illinois University, in an interview. He added that U.S. veterans continue to suffer from high rates of PTSD, suicide and other health problems after serving in foreign wars.
President Nixon resigned before he could be impeached over his role in the Watergate scandal, not the horrific violence resulting from the failed U.S. war with Vietnam. President Clinton ordered military strikes against several countries while in office, including the bombing of a major pharmaceutical supplier in Sudan apparently mistaken for a chemical weapons plant, with long-lasting humanitarian consequences. But, as Boyle puts it, Clinton was essentially impeached by the House for “lying” about extramarital “fellatio” — not authorizing mass violence.
Efforts to impeach President George H.W. Bush never caught on with mainstream Democrats, even as his war-making plunged the U.S. into extended quagmires in the Middle East. In 1991, Boyle served as an adviser to a Democrat in Congress who introduced articles of impeachment against Bush senior for launching the Persian Gulf War and risking the lives of U.S. soldiers in a conquest for oil.
Later, President George W. Bush survived calls for impeachment and was elected to a second term — even though his administration resorted to torture (an international war crime) and its claims that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction proved to be false after U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003. The war took a heavy toll on the Iraqi people and continues today. President Obama’s drone strikes in the Middle East killed civilians – and three U.S. citizens in Yemen, including a 16-year-old boy.
Why doesn’t Congress pursue impeachment for war crimes?
“Something domestic resonates more with Congress and the American people and that’s what we are seeing today,” Boyle said. “Then again, we are talking about war crimes and crimes against humanity and torture, which is quite serious, perhaps far more serious constitutionally and legally than, you know, domestic violations.”
The U.S. has often resisted international accountability for war crimes, and Trump has not been shy about that kind of resistance himself. His administration has refused to cooperate with an international court investigating war crimes in Afghanistan, forcing the court to abandon its proceedings. He has also considered presidential pardons for several U.S. war criminals.
Boyle argues that acts considered war crimes under international law easily translate to impeachable offenses under the U.S. Constitution.
“Legally — and, I think, constitutionally — there is no difference, because most rules of international law we are talking about here have been incorporated into United States domestic law,” such as the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions of the 20th century, Boyle said. “These are treaties that have received the advice and consent of the United States Senate and were incorporated into U.S. law.”
Yet, Boyle said, at is this point, voters in the U.S. may be “inured” to never-ending war and violence overseas, even if it’s being waged in their name. This could explain why presidents face impeachment for matters that have nothing to do with life or death.
Of course, there are plenty of domestic policies of the Trump administration that could inspire public outrage toward impeachment – policies that raise serious legal questions under the Constitution. Trump’s move to divert federal funding towards his pet project, “the wall” along the Mexican border, would be a good example, along with the humanitarian crisis his policies are exacerbating there.
Yet impeaching president Trump on any of this would require public pressure on Congress, and with issues like immigration remaining highly partisan, it’s unlikely we will see that kind of accountability anytime soon. In the meantime, we must settle for the latest Trumpian scandal, which indeed reeks of seriously ethical and constitutional violations — even if those have nothing to do with war and peace or life and death.