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While Mitt Romney called it “the most abusive and destructive violation of one’s oath of office that I can imagine”, Trump was never going to be removed from office. Yet the lessons from this tawdry episode go beyond the presidency, and well beyond the US.

A greyscale democracy?

The sand bank that the Mueller investigation ran into had proved to Trump that he has “the right to do anything I want as president”. L’état, c’est moi.

The shift to overt rule by diktat – and capricious diktat at that – has left the Republican Party scrambling for something that could pass for a set of principles. They are failing miserably, with important implications for democracies and despots everywhere.

In truth, erosion of what Republicans pretended to be core principles began well before this particular episode. Plenty of “principles” turned out not to be “core” after all, such as:

Religious freedom, a founding principle and guaranteed in the constitution – so long as you are not Muslim, that is, or from a majority Muslim country.

Foreign policy is where you align yourself with autocrats and dictators and denounce as “weak” or as “foes”, staunch allies with established and well-functioning democracies and rule of law. Trade policy is reduced to an instrument of patronage.

Fiscal responsibility is de rigueur, at least when it comes to cutting welfare and assistance to the needy in order to fund reckless tax cuts for the rich. The government now spends 5.5% more each year than it collects in revenues, a deficit that is up from the 3.1% bequeathed by Obama, 3.1% (and an economic meltdown) by Bush and a surplus of 2.3% at the end of Clinton’s term.

An “independent” judiciary turns out to be one whose members are selected for political fealty rather than judicial probity. Rule of law is somehow less important when the White House is staffed by a revolving door of felons.

In breaching the minimum standards that hold in any civil or criminal court Republicans have clearly demonstrated their contempt for the electors who pay their salaries: a whitewash that comes perilously close to a cover-up, leading us to suspect that the president’s actions were in fact even worse than we thought.

Witnesses who would be called in any civil or criminal trial were shunned because senators “had all the information they needed”. Read: their testimony could further expose the president’s corruption. The Senate in effect concedes that the alleged abuse and obstruction did indeed occur.

In a clear attempt to intimidate, the president’s stooges tried to expose the whistle-blower whose courage drew attention to this latest presidential scam. Ordinary citizens can be sent to prison for that.

Senators were said to have been warned by their president: “vote against the president and your head will be on a pike.” So it is now perfectly acceptable to threaten senators in their capacity as jurors. Ordinary people get sent to prison for that too.

The bar for acceptable presidential behaviour is now well below what applies to ordinary citizens. This means that the president is indeed above the law, contradicting what most of us have understood to be the essence of democracy: that “nobody is above the law”.

Synchronised incongruence

The moral gymnastics by the administration’s defence lawyers have been positively Olympian. First, they insisted that the accusations were all false, with no “first-hand witnesses”. As first-hand witnesses came forward one after the other, the argument morphed into “oh, well, yes, he did do all that, but he has the right to, so long as it could have been, or he believed it to have been in the national interest.” So from now on you can do whatever it takes to cling to office, because you believe that to be in the national interest. Presumably that would also extend to burgling your opponent’s headquarters. Nixon would be spitting that he’d caved in so easily.

Each Republican seems to have come up with their own rationale for saving their electoral skin: Senator Murkowski says the president’s actions are “deplorable”; Lamar Alexander that they are “inappropriate”, but neither thinks it enough to warrant impeachment, leaving one to wonder what would. Marco Rubio says he is impeachable, but that’s not the “right” thing to do.

Of 53 Republican senators, only Mitt Romney had the moral courage to vote against Trump. In doing so, he blew apart the fiction that this impeachment trial was a purely partisan affair.

Could the Republicans’ real problem be that running Mike Pence in November would lose them all their jobs?

U.S. Senator Mitt Romney

It is now established precedent that foreign policy can now be diverted for the president’s own purposes without consulting the people’s representatives. A president can make use of the public purse and wield the power of office for personal political gain.

Perhaps most worrying is that the Ukraine episode is only one of many examples of high-level graft by this administration. In a healthy, functioning democracy, any one of the others would be grounds for impeachment and removal from office. In this one, its hard to know which corrupt behaviour is actually the worst, so none go punished.

Without even a pretence to a set of principles, Republicans’ only asset now is Trump and political patronage, pointing clearly in the direction of personality-cult politics and encouraging despots and would-be despots everywhere. The repercussions go well beyond the U.S.

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Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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