Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jan 13, 2020
As the case for Trump’s impeachment heads to the US Senate for trial, the most probable outcome may only exacerbate challenges for US-India ties
The impact of Trump’s impeachment on US-India ties This week, as the US and Iran further devolved onto a collision course, another point of friction re-emerged with American legislators returning to Washington for resumption of the US Congress. Before the winter recess, US President Donald Trump earned the dubious distinction of being one of only three American presidents to have ever been impeached. The Democrat-led House of Representatives probed into Trump’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. The three month-long committee investigations lent credence to the allegation that the Trump administration withheld military aid worth nearly USD 400 million to Ukraine in exchange for a corruption investigation into Joe Biden – former US vice president and frontrunner for the Democratic ticket for the 2020 presidential elections. After nearly eight hours of debate on the House floor, legislators voted to impeach Trump on two counts – for ‘abuse of power’ 230-197 against, and for ‘obstruction of Congress’ 229-198 against. Sometime this month, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is expected to transfer those articles of impeachment to the upper chamber – the US Senate – which the US Constitution accords the “sole Power to try” (i.e. conviction and removal of) a sitting president.

Trump’s fate in the Senate and the 2020 presidential elections

Unlike the last couple instances of impeachment in US history, however, Trump’s case encompasses the variable of the chambers of Congress being in control of different parties – the Democrats have a majority in the House (232-197) and Republicans hold the Senate (53-45 ). Thus, partisanship has gripped this process – which otherwise is meant to be an arduous, deliberative undertaking by the legislature to check executive malpractice and/or overreach. As a result, on the impeachment vote in the House being largely on partisan lines, Republicans have alleged the Democrats to have based the same “on a vendetta against the president” which started “since the day he was elected.” Similarly, on the high chance that none of the Senate Republicans are set to cross party lines to vote in favour of conviction and removal – which requires a two-thirds majority (67 votes), Democrats have blamed Republicans of being “part of a cover up”. Moreover, as the US enters an election season, the remainder process in the Senate is also expected to encompass high political drama and reek of rabid partisanship. For instance, currently Speaker Pelosi is holding the transfer of articles of impeachment to the Senate and has not appointed impeachment managers – the House representatives that shall head to the upper chamber to assume the role of prosecutors. The reason being, a deadlock with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Democrats argue, norms dictate Senate leaders to consult and devise the trial structure – like subpoenaing witnesses and including prior testimonies and documents, ahead of the trial. Refraining from an extensive political circus that could drag well into the election cycle, McConnell has played hard ball by insisting on “midtrial questions” like that over witnesses to figure only after the opening arguments and questions by senators – much like in the case of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Whereas, Pelosi has sought the pre-determination of witnesses, against the likelihood of Senate Republicans in their questioning, expanding the purview of the trial to also include the alleged corruption charge on Joe Biden and his son over their dealings with Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings. Even as this contention over the rules of the road unfolds, the most probable outcome bears ominous prospects for the US-India bilateral dynamic.

Beware of the acquitted and re-elected

With the objective to “bring about a speedy acquittal of the president, belittling the House’s case in the process”, McConnell recently also declared to have enough votes to determine the trial structure without any support from the Democrats. To set the rules of the road, 51 votes are required – well within the majority margin the Republicans enjoy in the Senate. Until McConnell’s declaration, Democrats had hinged their hopes on moderate Republicans to support their call for witness testimonies in the Senate hearing, by breaking from their ranks to vote against McConnell’s agenda. McConnell’s hurry can be understood in the context of the fast approaching election cycle possibly being raided by a prolonged political circus at the Senate impeachment trial. Once acquitted, Republicans hope to clear the way for Trump’s re-election bid. Oddly however, Trump has not only made enough political hay out of the impeachment sunlight, but also dollars. In the last quarter of 2019, the Trump re-election campaign again surpassed Democratic fundraising to reportedly raise USD 46 million – to bring up his cumulative to USD 102 million for the entire year. Riding this wave, if Trump is acquitted in the Senate and re-elected in the 2020 elections, his administration will return for a second and final term – with freedom from the pressures of re-election. Most importantly, since Trump’s foreign policy conduct has been the central focus of the impeachment saga, the re-election of Trump will be seen as according vindication to the ‘America First’ worldview. On India, Trump has not shied from raising the spectre of sanctions to seek India’s policy congruence on countries like Iran and Russia. Moreover, Trump has largely pursued continuity on raising the tempo of US-India defence ties – albeit with some degree of transactionalism (Washington lets Delhi know: Buy our F-16s, can give Russia deal waiver). In addition, Trump has often not adhered to the erstwhile Carter mantraunder which, past US administrations’ approach to India was dictated by an unstated commitment to not let inconsistencies on trade matters assume the fore. The Trump administration, however, has levied steel and aluminium tariffs on India, revoked India’s status under the GSP programme, briefly toyed with the idea of limiting Indians’ H1-B visas quota to 15 percent due to differences on e-commerce, and even contemplated a Section 301 investigation into India’s tariff and non-tariff trade barriers. Hence, with Trump’s expected acquittal in the Senate and his possible re-election, India is sure to face the brunt of the ‘America First’ worldview at a heightened rate.

Brace for the return of a Blue wave

With McConnell mustering enough votes to determine the trial structure, the Democrats’ demand for witnesses may not actualise. However, given the new information which emerged over the holidays – like the emergence of Defence Department emails that underscore Trump’s involvement in freezing aid to Ukraine and former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s willingness to testify, the Democrats can adopt an unconventional method to get their way. This would involve making a direct appeal to Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts – who is constitutionally mandated to preside over the Senate trial, to allow issuing subpoenas to witnesses. But this is currently being deemed to be a highly unlikely scenario, given the serious precedent it would set. As for the 2020 presidential elections, the jury is still out whether the Democratic primaries can avoid derailment at the hands of a widening schism between centrists and the progressive Democrats. At the very least, however, one can expect another Blue wave in 2020 – much like the 2018 midterms which swept Democrats to power in the House of Representatives, to possibly unseat some Republican senators. For instance, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner is up for re-election in Colorado – which is emerging as a swing state given its inhabitants’ rising support for impeaching Trump. In another battleground state, Arizona, Republican Sen. Martha McSally is facing a steep fight from retired astronaut Mark Kelly running on a Democratic ticket. This could dent the already slim majority that the Republicans hold in the Senate. A greater hold of the Democrats in the Senate – in addition to their comfortable control over the House, would accentuate the tussle between the legislature and the executive. Under Trump, that tension has already led to some shift in the locus of foreign policy decision-making away from the Oval Office, and towards the Hill. A recent case in point being, the resolutions being furthered by Democrats to curb Trump’s powers to initiate military operations against Iran. On India, House Democrats have become increasingly vocal about their apprehensions on Trump’s ambivalence towards controversial moves like the Narendra Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir. Democratic lawmakers have also introduced two House Resolutions on Kashmir that specifically deride India’s communications lockdown in the Valley. Actions like these reflect India now increasingly becoming a partisan affair in the American bipartisan consensus. With greater control in the Senate, the next time around, Democrats may not stop their condemnations at mere House Resolutions that do not carry the weight of law. In addition, the same would accord them greater sway in nominations of political appointees (like the US Ambassador to India) and into arms transfers via special provisions of the Arms Export Control Act – which exclusively accords senators the right to “bring up for debate the merits of problematic arms sales.” Hence, even as the impeachment saga inches towards its conclusion in the Senate, the most probable outcome does not augur well for US-India ties.
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Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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