The impeachment curse

The third impeachment of an American President in my living memory is now drawing to a close: Nixon in 1973-74, Clinton in 1998-99, and Trump in 2019-20. Nixon used government agents to break into the offices of his political opponents and install bugs to spy on them, and then covered up the crime. Clinton’s rampant sexual appetite drew him into intimidation, coercion and perjury, and he too, against a background scent of ruthless operations, tried to cover it up. Trump took a short relationship-building phone call with a neophyte Ukrainian President during which he asked a perhaps indelicate but perfectly reasonable question about suspicious, possibly corrupt conduct in office of a political opponent, and former American Vice-President. He made the mistake of having rats in the ship of his National Security Council, who would blow the whistle on “foreign interference”. Unlike his predecessors, Trump did not cover it up, but actually released the innocent transcripts of his calls.

The old adage – first from Hegel, then amplified in Marx – applies: history appears first as tragedy, and then as farce. Farce, sham, hoax, fiasco – all these words surely apply to this last and most dishonourable of impeachments. I would wish other words would be applied now: collapse, fizzle, walk of shame. But I suspect the sanctimonious Chair of the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, will stand over the dead bodies of the Democrat army, and shout Charge! Subpoena! Attack Russia! yet again. Somewhere in the distance Nancy Pelosi is praying for the Constitution and muttering incoherently about the law.

Failure does not count for this forever Trump impeachment crusade that began even before the Bad Orange Man took office. Democrats, liberals, progressives have been infected with a curse – the curse of impeachment. The curse has a long history.

Let us look at the famous impeachment of Warren Hastings, the head of the East India Company, beginning in February 1788 (within a month, I note in my antipodean home, of the British settlement at Sydney Cove). This case was directly considered by the framers in debating the impeachment clause. Like Trump’s case, with Schiff striving to be renowned as the Pericles of Los Angeles, it was marked by high rhetoric from truly great practitioners, Edmund Burke and the playwright/prosecutor, Richard Sheridan (perhaps Adam Schiff’s role model, since Schiff aspired when young to be a screenwriter). Huge crowds and all of high society came to Westminster to watch this great trial. In his opening speech, Burke thundered: “We have brought before you the head, the Captain General of Iniquity – one whom in all the frauds, all the peculations, all the violence, all the tyranny in India are embodied.” Burke spoke for four days, and was followed by the theatrical Sheridan. As William Dalrymple tells the story in the chapter on “The impeachment of Warren Hastings” in his masterful, The Anarchy: the Relentless Rise of the East India Company:

“His speech was widely regarded as one of the greatest feats of oratory of his day. Even the Speaker was rendered speechless. At the end of his impassioned performance, Sheridan whispered, ‘My lords, I have done’, and swooned backwards, landing in Burke’s arms. ‘The whole house – the members, peers, strangers – involuntarily joined in a tumult of applause… There were few dry eyes in the assembly.’ Gibbon [the historian Edward Gibbon], alarmed at his friend’s condition, went around the following day to check if Sheridan was all right: ‘He is perfectly well,’ he noted in his diary. ‘A good actor.’

Dalrymple, The Anarchy, p 311

The trial gave birth to theories of human rights, and began the slow process of containment of the East India Company within conventional imperial rule, but it was founded on one faulty premise. They impeached the wrong man. Worse, the prosecutors fell victim to the revenge, hate and “obsessional passion” of a bitter and more questionable character, Philip Francis, who had been exposed by Hastings as corrupt, incompetent and contemptible of the cultures of India. Francis had even fought ineptly and lost a duel with Hastings. After the duel he returned to England bitter, vengeful and twisted to a rotten borough in Parliament, and poured poison into the ear of Edmund Burke and others. So began, the eighteenth century’s most famous impeachment hoax.

In fact, Hastings had, in Dalrymple’s words, “probably done more than any other Company official to rein in the worst excesses of its rule” (The Anarchy, p 311). He genuinely loved India, perhaps even more than England to which he was an orphaned stranger. He routinely expressed outrage at the unprincipled exploitation of the Indians by Company officals. He rebuilt justice, peace and the economy within Bengal, and was the most popular of all the British officials in India, ‘positively beloved of the people’.

In an uncanny preview of the Trump impeachment, the bitter curse that infected Philip Francis and the prosecutors of Warren Hastings drove a conspiracy that undermined the truth of their case.

As a result of Francis’s influence, the Articles of Impeachment were full of demonstrable fantasies and distortions, which traded on the ignorance of the audience about the issues and personalities involved. They were also badly drafted and lacked the necessary legal detail. Many of the entertaining speeches were little better than ad hominem rants, mixing falsified history and unproved innuendo… It took Hastings’ defence many weeks even to begin correcting the multiple errors of basic facts which the prosecution had laid out. If anything, the Impeachment demonstrated above all the sheer ignorance of the British about the subcontinent they had been looting so comprehensively, and profitably, for thirty years.”

Dalrymple,The Anarchy, p 313

So, in Trump’s trial, the real truth exposed by the proceedings is the corrupt export of American crony capitalism to countries like Ukraine that the American political and commercial elite, like the Bidens and the Clintons, have “been looting so comprehensively, and profitably, for thirty years.”

And so too the impeachment of Warren Hastings failed, although it took seven years to reach this conclusion. The last years of Hastings were blighted by the injustice perpetrated on him, and the misfired conspracy did not help India. For Hastings was replaced not by a man of his sparse habits, and admiration for Indian culture, but by a failed general with a deep humilation to overcome, the same general expelled by the founders and framers of the American constitution, General Lord Charkes Cornwallis.

This curse of impeachment appears again in the main American trials. Jackson is impeached, but not removed from office, for breaking a law that is later found to be unconstitutional. Clinton’s impeachment exposed a case of derangement syndrome by his political opponents, which backfired badly on them. An over-zealous case not rooted in high crimes backfired against the prosecutors. Clinton rose in popularity, despite his character flaws and unethical conduct, and the Republican power structures collapsed, leading to the resignation of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House.

And now the curse of impeachment has struck again. Despite warnings to forsake an obsession with impeachment by columnists and candidates, they marched to the Valley of Death led by their warrior-priest Schiff and their ancient queen Pelosi. Despite the complete collapse of the RussiaGate hoax, they pursued another cooked up charge by the intelligence community, who appear to be governed by no basic code of public sector conduct or even basic decency or loyalty to democratic authority. Despite the exposure of the falsity of the “whistleblower” claims, they pressed on, and got caught in a web of their own lies about not knowing Eric Ciaramella. Despite complicity in perpetrating the extraordinary injustices exposed by the Inspector General in relation to the FBI, CrossFire Hurricane and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, they pushed forward with another case of bad process and prosecutorial misconduct. Despite the endless claims that no-one is above the law, they claim the right to conduct impeachment without constraint of the law. Despite claiming to want a fair trial, they put on a show trial, and yet everyone saw through it.

Al Green, Democratic Congressman, admitted that the impeachment process began before Trump was even elected. From the first protests of “Not my President” to today’s bizarre claims that “This is no acquittal”, the impeachment curse has driven the Democrats and the Resistance into a world of constitutional and political fantasy. Now Mara Gay from the New York Times editorial board – no doubt one of Schiff’s co-conspirators in the media with the “Bolton bombshells” – says America is in a “very scary moment in its history a capstone in a total collapse in faith in American institutions” because the Senate essentially dismisses the charges against President Trump as unproven, unconstitutional and unlawful. She did not say the same thing when the FBI was exposed as unlawfully spying on a domestic Presidential campaign, and indeed on the same President in office, and lying to the courts.

Sadly it seems, the curse of impeachment has deranged American democracy. For this deadly virus to be cleared from the democratic heart, I expect it will take Trump’s re-election, a Republican victory in the House, a concerted purge and rebuilding of American government officials, a reckoning with bias and political alliances in media corporations, and and a return to the ordinary virtues, traditions and rule of law of the constitutional republic. It might take a few years. It might take a few prosecutions from the Durham investigation. It will witness much melodrama and a few flame outs. It will require constraint on the part of the many institutions and political actors who have been abused by this crusade. Indeed, it will require the very restraint and return to traditions of decent deliberation that just over half of the US Senate has displayed in bringing this miscarriage of justice to an end. There lies the hope.

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