Trump’s impeachment is historic. But will it have consequences?

Donald Trump, the President whose road to the White House was so unexpected, made history once more this week. 

Following a vote by the American Congress on Thursday local time the President this week became only the third leader in the history of the American Republic to be impeached. 

The initiation of proceedings means the Senate will soon try the President on charges of abusing the Office of the President and obstructing justice. If two-thirds of Senators vote to find him guilty, the 45th President’s time in office would be terminated. 

Mr. Trump joins a small club. Many will remember the last time impeachment proceedings were initiated, against President Bill Clinton, in the twilight of his second term.

In that case, the President escaped the ultimate punishment but not the tarnishing of his legacy. Few have forgotten his often embarrassingly evasive testimony before a grand jury on charges of having lied about an affair.  

But while the events of Thursday are indeed historic they appear much less likely to be consequential: not just on whether President Trump continues to occupy the Oval Office but also his public image. 

When it comes down to the crunch, politics is simply arithmetic. 

The Republican party holds a majority in the Senate. They will be able to set the terms on which the President is tried, including, crucially, whether witnesses are called during impeachment proceedings. And they are especially unlikely to break ranks in sufficient numbers to deliver the two-thirds majority vote required to remove a President from office. 

If Mr. Trump’s current predicament has any historical parallels they are probably closest to a former President who resigned before he could ever be impeached: Richard Nixon.

Just three years into his administration, six of President Trump’s close associates have been convicted or imprisoned - some on sentences of three years or more. That list includes his lawyer, Michael Cohen; the man who managed his 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort, and his former political advisor, Roger Stone, all of whom have been convicted of serious crimes.  

That may remind of the final year of the Nixon administration, when senior staff, including the then-President's former Chief-of-Staff, H. R. Haldeman and adviser John Ehrlichman, were charged for their involvement in a break-in at the Watergate hotel. 

But unlike Mr. Nixon the current President does not appear to be a man at the centre of a tightening noose. 

In fact, a whiff of scandal has surrounded the President and his administration since its earliest days and appears to have had little effect on his public perception. 

That reflects not just the way politics has changed in the modern era but also the manner in which President Trump himself has rewritten the rules of politics. 

While politicians before him have been highly concerned about critical media coverage, President Trump nonchalantly dismisses it as “fake news”. 

A mere impeachment trial is unlikely to dent the support base of a man who has already been found to have lied extensively; been accused of sexual impropriety by more than a dozen women; and been caught on tape making shocking statements about his attitudes towards sexual harassment. 

President Trump prefers to communicate to the public without media intermediaries and via social media. 

His “fake news” defence clearly resonates with the core support base that brought him to office: lesser-educated white men who are extremely distrustful and even hostile towards politicians and the media. 

On the day of his impeachment, Mr. Trump was already stoking the prejudices of his political base. The President’s Twitter account released a political advertisement that read: “In reality they’re not after me they’re after you. I’m just in the way”.

The broader American public, too, appears to have accepted that a certain degree of unsavouriness and trickiness is part of Mr. Trump’s character. However the impeachment process plays out, it seems unlikely to change the way voters view him. 

President Trump’s political style appears to have made him almost scandal proof. And this week’s impeachment is no exception. A Gallup Poll released on Friday showed that the initiation of impeachment proceedings in fact increased the President’s approval ratings to their highest point this year.

American politics has grown increasingly partisan and tribal. That is a phenomenon driven in part by voters turning away from the considered reporting of mainstream media outlets to online and social media channels that exist only to reinforce their beliefs. 

In today’s climate, it is hard to imagine Republican Senators turning on President Trump as they did on Mr. Nixon in 1974. 

What does all of this mean for Samoa? 

It was once a truism of global politics that if the United States sneezed Samoa caught a cold.

But this year has shown that increased engagement with Pacific states, especially Samoa, now appears to be an issue on which there is bi-partisan consensus in America and which will continue regardless of who is in charge. Democrats and Republicans this year jointly established the first ever Congressional Pacific Islands Caucus.

One issue of significance for Samoa, though, is the politically savvy way in which Samoan Congresswoman for Hawaii and Presidential candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, broke ranks with her party on impeachment. She was the only Democratic representative to abstain from voting for Trump to be impeached. 

She currently lies in the middle of a crowded pack of contenders for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 Presidential race. But her actions show Congresswoman Gabbard intends to campaign from the centre and woo any potentially disaffected Republicans and supporters of Mr. Trump.  

This has earnt her the ire of many of her colleagues, who saw her abstention as an act of betrayal. But whether her strategy heightens her national profile and improves her chances of becoming the Democratic nominee, or even a Vice-Presidential candidate, remains to be seen. 

Should it pay off, though, we would see history being made again - and the implications for Samoa would be significant.

Have a nice weekend, Samoa. And God bless.  

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