Was the impeachment saga a signal of democracy’s decline?

Barbara McQuade

THE WASHINGTON POST – Trump on Trial is a stranger-than-fiction tale of our recent national nightmare. But it’s more than just a page-turning account of presidential malfeasance, bitter political wrangling and a failed battle to hold our top public official accountable. Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan, both Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters, fashioned a portrait of the third impeachment of an American president as a barometer of the health of our democracy.

The authors, working with a team of Post reporters and editor Steve Luxenberg, uncovered riveting new details about the House investigation and Senate trial of President Trump.

They draw on news reports, social media posts, hearing transcripts, government records and new reporting to assess whether the impeachment stands as an exceptional event in American history or a symptom of a democracy in decline.

Although we know how the story ends, Trump on Trial forces us to consider the efficacy of the impeachment process and the integrity of its outcome.

The book recounts the catalyst for the House inquiry: Trump’s request to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to “do us a favour” by investigating political rival Joe Biden and his son’s connections to a Ukrainian energy company. Memorable witnesses like Gordon Sondland, United States (US) ambassador to the European Union (EU), confirmed that Trump’s request was a “quid pro quo” for military aid.

On a wealth of evidence, the president was impeached on allegations of abuse of power and obstruction of justice, but the Senate voted to acquit him. With the vote breaking down almost perfectly along party lines, the book invites us to wonder whether the facts of the case were fully appreciated and whether the impeachment power worked as the framers of the Constitution intended.

Events in late 2019 and early 2020 acquire fresh significance in light of the proceedings and Trump’s acquittal.

Representative John Lewis’ speech urging an impeachment investigation is a poignant moment in the book, with our knowledge that he will succumb to pancreatic cancer a short time later. Lewis, a warrior for civil rights, was deeply concerned about Trump’s behaviour and the future of the country.

“People approach me everywhere I go,” he said on the House floor. “They believe, they truly believe, that our nation is descending into darkness. I share their concerns. It keeps me up at night.” He urged his colleagues to uphold their oath to protect the nation against all enemies, domestic and foreign. “Sometimes I am afraid to go to sleep,” Lewis admitted, “for fear that I will wake up and our democracy will be gone, will be gone, and never return”.

The coronavirus gets a sneak preview here, “an emerging new worry”, the authors wrote, hinting at darker days ahead and Trump’s lack of focus on the threat. The health of the American people and the health of American democracy suddenly seem on parallel tracks. When Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar connects by phone with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in January, Sullivan and Jordan write, Azar has “trouble focussing Trump’s full attention on the deadly virus spreading in Asia”.

The book reveals the human instincts behind the political theatre surrounding the impeachment. We see how views evolved within the Democratic Party on whether to start an investigation.

The old guard, led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was initially wary that impeachment could derail the party’s fortunes in the 2020 election. When asked in March 2019 about impeaching Trump, Pelosi replied in staccato wording, “He’s. Just. Not. Worth. It.” Slowly, however, she changed her mind as the facts trickled out. The authors give us a glimpse into her character by taking us inside her Capitol Hill office. “On display,” they wrote, suggesting the House Speaker was not one to give up easily, “was a favourite gift – pink boxing gloves, monogrammed for the five-foot-two-inch fighter.” In September, after a call with Trump in which he told her, “You don’t really want to do this,” she publicly announced the impeachment inquiry.

We know how the impeachment trial ended. It sits heavy in our recent memory. But with their colourful and detailed telling, Sullivan, Jordan and the Post team turned these contemporary events into a chapter of American history – one in which party politics prevail over truth, justice and the national interest.

In this way, Trump on Trial is a service to all of us who wish to believe that that particular nightmare now occupies a place in the past, that it is behind us and we can move on. But the saga also forcefully reminds us that only by recognising the damage to our democracy can we begin to repair it and avoid the nightmare John Lewis imagined.