I’ve followed and studied politics all my life. I believe I can contribute to most discussions about how it is practiced, about what it means, about its positives and negatives. I’ve known great politicians and weak ones, nice ones and vicious ones, charming ones and ones with so little charm you’d wonder how they could ever get elected to anything.
I’ve had heroes and villains. And I have never, in a reasonably long and active life, known anything like the phenomenon of Donald Trump.
Is there anyone in the history of world politics more odd, more unpredictable, possibly more dangerous, than he is? Has anyone ever got so far with so little apparent ability or knowledge? Has anyone ever confounded expectations so often and so bizarrely?
Will his hold on the Republican party remain as strong as it is now? It really is quite striking that there are so many senior republicans who clearly despise him, and whom he has so often humiliated in the past, who are nevertheless prepared to stick by him through his appalling behaviour and equally appalling decisions.
Right now, it probably seems unlikely that the process of impeachment which has been started will go anywhere. Trump himself seems determined to go to war against anyone and everyone who makes even the slightest suggestion that he has done anything wrong. (Indeed, it’s beginning to look as if he might be willing to start an actual war as a distraction against the process now under way.)
Everyone involved on the democratic side has been viciously attacked, in public and private. Nancy Pelosi has been accused of treason. She and Adam Schiff, the senior house democrat, have been accused of lying consistently and perpetrating a hoax. The whistleblowers involved in the case are apparently in fear of their lives, so strong has been Trump’s vitriol against them.
And there does seem to be a sort of general expectation that this is just another of Trump’s crises, and that he will see this through as he has survived everything in the past. His base, as they call it, is holding firm. But I wonder.
The process of impeachment is straightforward. The House of Representatives by simple majority can send a president for trial by the Senate, on stated grounds. The Senate conducts a trial, and decides effectively to convict or acquit. But if they decide to convict, it must be by a two-thirds majority.
I’m old enough to remember when the Republican president Richard Nixon resigned, and the hole that was left in my life when the Watergate scandal took its most famous victim. I was utterly fascinated by him and by the story — my wife used to describe me as being obsessed with Nixon.
I followed the unfolding scandal as closely as I could at the time — this was long before the internet, children — and I read every book I could get my hands on. If I had ever been invited to take part in Mastermind, I was pretty confident that I’d have gone a long way if Watergate could be my chosen subject.
Nixon was, of course, the only president of the US to resign because of impeachment. And yet, there was never a vote in the US Congress to impeach him and send him for trial by the Senate. Three articles of impeachment were adopted by a committee of the congress, accusing Nixon of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt for the houses of congress.
But before they could be voted on, three senior republicans went to Nixon and persuaded him not only that they would be passed by a huge majority, but that he hadnothing like enough support in the Senate. If 34 of the 100 senators were prepared to support him, he’d have survived.
But once a famous tape was discovered that revealed how much he knew about the Watergate break-in (it was called the smoking gun tape) his support in the Senate, among his own party allies, evaporated. It wasn’t the result of the impeachment enquiries that did Nixon in. It was the process.
Once a formal impeachment enquiry begins, it’s no longer a case of politicians making speeches and asking prepared and stilted questions. Instead, it’s assigned to a committee, like the house judiciary committee. And that committee appoints a staff to prepare the case. For the duration of the enquiry, that staff works on nothing else.
There were a number of turning points in the Watergate enquiry, but one of the most important involved a witness no-one had ever heard of. The staff had interviewed him in detail for a little over four hours on a Friday afternoon.
So it was that the following Monday a largely unknown political appointee called Alexander Butterfield appeared in front of the enquiry, on live television. His testimony only lasted half an hour. But in that half-hour, he told the world that Nixon had had equipment installed in his office that recorded everything he said.
It was to take many more months, and an awful lot of political drama, before the committee got to listen to the tapes of Nixon’s conversations. But from the moment Alexander Butterfield told the committee the taping system existed, Nixon was doomed.
And that’s the danger Donald Trump faces now. If an impeachment enquiry begins, he will be forced to sit and watch — or fume and tweet — while a succession of witnesses is sworn in, interrogated in private by highly skilled lawyers, and then put on live television to be asked the same questions in front of the cameras.
EVERY witness will know in advance that if they are caught in a lie, they will go to jail. They do that in America — it’s not like here where if you tell lies to a judicial enquiry, the worst that might happen is that you don’t get your legal fees paid.
So Donald Trump will have to wait and watch while witness after witness is called: Diplomats who didn’t trust him; political lackeys who have fallen out with him, and public servants who have their own reputations to consider.
Nobody knows right now if a smoking gun is going to emerge in the process. But back in Watergate, nobody knew there was a smoking gun until Alexander Butterfield took the stand.
So will he, can he, be impeached and convicted? I don’t know, and I don’t suppose any of us do. But I’m pretty certain of three things. First, Donald Trump doesn’t yet have a clue about the amount of danger he is in. And second, if a formal impeachment committee is set up, this would be the greatest political drama for years.
For the first half of next year we would see an awful lot of intense action-packed theatre. Thirdly, If I had the franchise and could sell tickets, I’m certain I’d make my fortune at last.