Trump impeachment smells fishy in the Midwest

 Middle America isn’t hungry for hearings, but Trump 2020 is no sure thing

Is the history of impeachment going to repeat itself? Or Re-Pete itself? Re-Pete’s Saloon & Grill, I should explain, is located in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, in a county that voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 57% to 42% in 2012, but for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by 53% to 42% four years later.

Re-Pete’s is my kind of place, although I’ve yet to visit and owe the recommendation to the journalist Mark Halperin. The regular menu states: “Water is free, too bad the beer isn’t!” The motto above the seafood section is: “Catch & release . . . into the grease!”

Halperin’s high-flying career was derailed by accusations of sexual harassment at the height of the #MeToo campaign. But he has made his apologies — for past transgressions that were indefensible but not criminal — and is now back.

Last week he observed that if the hunting types in Re-Pete’s were glued to the impeachment hearings then “the Democrats have a very strong chance of making their public case to the American people”. So on Wednesday afternoon, he rang Re-Pete’s.

MH: “Do you have the impeachment hearings on the TVs there?”

Guy from Re-Pete’s: “The what? No, we do sports stuff.”

The point is that the impeachment of Trump — the prospect of which consumes at least three-quarters of the attention of the coastal elites who watch CNN and read The New York Times — matters only if voters in swing states such as Wisconsin give a damn.

From the vantage point of Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, this is not the road she wanted to go down, much less the hill she wanted to die on. Throughout the months when Washington lived for the release of former FBI director Robert Mueller’s report, she did her best to dampen the ardour of her fellow Democrats.

For younger legislators, as for today’s millennial journalists, impeachment is a magical word, conjuring up memories of All the President’s Men. The veteran Pelosi, by contrast, knows that Trump isn’t Richard Nixon and “Dniepergate” isn’t Watergate. But the president left her no choice.

No sooner had the Mueller report fizzled out than Trump picked up the phone and tried to get the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to gather opposition research on the Democratic candidate Joe Biden in return for a presidential meeting and (although this was not initially clear to Zelensky) US military assistance.

Only when the quid pro quo was going to be made public — courtesy of a CIA agent who decided to blow the whistle — did the White House release the military aid.

The three previous presidential impeachments — of Andrew Johnson, Nixon and Bill Clinton — lasted 94, 186 and 127 days respectively. Now, you may want to spend the next three to six months glued to your television. I don’t, any more than the regulars at Re-Pete’s. There’s no need, anyway, because we know what’s going to happen. First, the House will vote to impeach the president, probably along party lines. The Republican Senate majority will then have to decide if it needs to hold a trial.

In theory, the Republicans could simply vote to dismiss the House’s case. But it seems more likely that the Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, will go ahead with a trial (or at least let one begin), though with the intention of acquitting the president.

By the time it’s all over, the Democratic primaries will probably be under way. All that will matter for the subsequent nine months will be how much the impeachment process has hurt Trump in battleground states such as Wisconsin.

True, as the constitutional lawyer Philip Bobbitt argues in his indispensable new edition of Charles Black’s classic book Impeachment, it is incorrect to think of impeachment as a purely political device. If it were, it would surely have been used much more often. The two-thirds threshold for conviction in the Senate all but requires that a successful impeachment be bipartisan.

The House must base an impeachment bill on the constitution, which specifies that a president may “be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. It’s another common mistake to think that this requires a president to have committed a criminal act in the ordinary sense. What the framers of the constitution had in mind, Bobbitt argues, were “the [unique] constitutional crimes that can be committed [only] by a president” — such as seeking foreign assistance in a US presidential election.

The Democrats have dropped “quid pro quo” since the public hearings began, calculating that Latin is not much spoken in places such as Black River Falls. Now their case against Trump is all about bribery. But, says Bobbitt, for bribery to be an impeachable offence it must “be an act that actually threatens the constitutional stability and security of the state . . . one that puts the constitution in jeopardy”.

In the words of Alexander Hamilton, impeachment is a “national inquest”. It is concerned with constitutional violations and, Bobbitt argues, “has no particular policy purpose other than protecting the state”. It is not a criminal proceeding, which is why double jeopardy does not forbid the subsequent trial of an impeached official, including a president.

On that basis, is it likely these hearings will generate enough evidence of constitutional crimes to persuade 20 Republican senators to vote for impeachment? I would doubt it. But might enough voters be turned off Trump to prevent his re-election in November? That’s a more interesting question. After all, re-election would mean four more years of Trump making US foreign policy on the Ukrainian model — and without the constraints that were imposed on him by the bureaucratic and military establishments in his first term.

To judge by the latest opinion polls, registered Democrats are overwhelmingly for impeaching and removing Trump, whereas nine in 10 Republicans agree with the president that this is a witch-hunt by the deep state and the do-nothing Democrats. But what about independent voters, who these days account for more than two-fifths of the electorate?

Fewer than a third of them thought the acts revealed by the Mueller report justified Trump’s impeachment and removal. However, that proportion has risen since the partial transcript of the Trump-Zelensky telephone call was released. The latest polls suggest that between 43% and half of independents now favour impeachment and removal. I detect a realisation that in his dealings with Ukraine this year the president came much closer to committing a constitutional crime, in Bobbitt’s sense, than in his previous conduct.

They may not be watching the hearings in Re-Pete’s Saloon & Grill, but they can smell something fishy cooking in the Washington grease. And that might turn out to matter more than we now realise in 352 days’ time, when Americans get to decide if Trump got caught — and whether he should be released or deep-fried.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Donald Trump could Facebook himself a second term

 Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment to free speech is good news for the president

An unusual thing happened last week. Mark Zuckerberg gave a speech with which I mostly agreed. Regular readers will know that I have frequently criticised the chief executive of Facebook. My book The Square and the Tower contains some harsh words about his company — and particularly its conduct in the fateful election year of 2016.

However, speaking at Georgetown University in Washington last week, the Facebook co-founder took a stance on the issue of free speech that pleasantly surprised me. First, he got his history right. “Giving everyone a voice,” he argued, “empowers the powerless” whereas “the most repressive societies have always restricted speech the most”. Correct. “Pulling back on free expression . . . often ended up hurting the minority views we seek to protect.” Also correct.

Second, Zuckerberg recognised that the internet has fundamentally transformed the public sphere. We are no longer in the old world of newspapers, radio and television: “People having the power to express themselves at scale is a new kind of force in the world — a Fifth Estate alongside the other power structures of society.”

I like the coinage of the Fifth Estate. In case you’ve lost track of those pre-French Revolution categories, the First Estate is — or was — the clergy, the second the nobility and the third the middle class. The fourth, the press, came later and should now be called the old media.

Pity me: I come from what little is left of the Third Estate and write for the fourth. The former is being hollowed out between the plutocratic “one per cent” and the populist masses; the latter is barely surviving the loss of advertising revenues to Facebook, not to mention Google. Small wonder that I have been a Zuckerberg critic. His Fifth Estate seems to have it in for both of mine.

The third and most important point of his talk was a trenchant defence of free speech. Facebook, he said, will “continue to stand for free expression, understanding its messiness, but believing that the long journey towards greater progress requires confronting ideas that challenge us”.

That will not mean applying a strict first amendment standard — remember, that binds only the government not to restrict speech — but something close to it. So far as possible, Facebook will not allow terrorist propaganda, child pornography, incitements to violence, misinformation “that could lead to imminent physical harm” and political messages by foreign bots masquerading as Americans. Otherwise, it will err on the side of free expression.

At a time when, not least in universities, there are ever-louder demands to prohibit “hate speech”, Zuckerberg’s opposition to the “ever-expanding definition of what speech is harmful” and his pledge to “fight to uphold as wide a definition of freedom of expression as possible” are very welcome. No trigger warnings. No safe spaces.

It is also refreshing to hear this affirmation of free speech at a time when the Chinese government is so clearly demonstrating the link from authoritarianism to censorship. It has been easy to criticise the National Basketball Association for its craven repudiation of the manager of the Houston Rockets, who had expressed his support for the Hong Kong protesters. That is the price of doing business in China. Last week I received the Chinese translation of The Square and the Tower. The sections on Chinese social and political networks were conspicuous by their absence. You either play by the Communist Party’s rules or you exit the Chinese market.

As Zuckerberg said in an interview last week, there is now a clear contest on the internet between “American companies and platforms with strong free expression values” and their Chinese rivals, which will censor whatever the government in Beijing tells them to. Right again.

The test of your commitment to free speech is how far you are prepared to tolerate not only views you disagree with — hate speech — but also views that are downright mendacious: fake speech. Last month Facebook unveiled a new policy not to moderate politicians’ speech or fact-check their political adverts. The policy was swiftly put to the test when Donald Trump’s campaign released a 30-second video advert accusing former US vice-president Joe Biden of corrupt conduct in Ukraine. When Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to take down the ad, the company refused. Elizabeth Warren — Biden’s rival for the Democratic nomination — countered by creating a fake ad of her own that claimed Zuckerberg and Facebook had endorsed Trump.

Warren has called Facebook a “disinformation-for-profit machine”. If elected president, she has pledged to break the company up. But, like her European counterparts, she fails to see that in asking Facebook to decide which political ads air and which do not, she is implicitly ceding far more power to the company than it wants or should have. Do we want free speech on the internet, with all its nastiness? Or do we want censorship, which historically tends to be associated with a much more profound nastiness? To me, that’s an easy one.

Yet there is a price tag associated with a free-speech Facebook and we should not ignore it. The presidential election of 2020 will be only the third in which the internet has been the decisive battleground. And the internet will matter even more in 2020 than it did in 2016, when it mattered more than it did in 2012.

In my previous column I noted — on the basis not only of opinion polls but also of prediction markets — that Warren had a serious chance of becoming president. But I now want to argue that, if you factor in social media, she will probably lose to Trump. And the same goes for anyone else the Democrats might choose to nominate. The reason is that Brad Parscale’s digital campaign for Trump is already miles ahead.

According to data for the year up to September 19, published by The New York Times last week, the Trump campaign has spent $15.9m (£12m) on Facebook and Google ads, more than the total spent by the top three Democratic candidates combined. While the Democrats do old-school things such as debating on cable television, Parscale and his team are aggregating the mobile advertising IDs of the entire voting population, matching location data from phone usage to other information they have.

In my book I argued that Facebook — not Russia — was the crucial factor in the 2016 election. From June to November 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign spent $28m and tested 66,000 different ads. Working closely with Facebook, Trump’s people spent nearly twice as much ($44m) and tested nearly a hundred times more ads (5.9m).

Facebook — and Google — will matter even more next year. One side fully understands that and it is not the Democrats. Zuckerberg is right: it is not his job to come between Parscale and Facebook users. But we should all clearly understand what this means: it very probably means a second Trump term.

The Fifth Estate has indeed empowered the powerless. But not only them.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Elizabeth Warren: the worse, the better for Donald Trump’s female foe

 The Massachusetts senator could win in 2020 if she surges and the economy stutters

Is it conceivable that, in just over a year’s time, the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren could defeat Donald Trump to become America’s first female president? Yes. Here’s why.

Since the summer, Warren has surged. The former vice-president Joe Biden was far ahead of her in the polls in May: 41% to 8%. Today they are almost neck and neck — 28% to 26%, according to the RealClearPolitics polling average. Biden is floundering, his age showing, his reputation tainted by the tar baby that is Ukraine (not to mention China, where son Hunter has been equally imprudent). Bernie Sanders just had a heart attack. The California senator Kamala Harris is fading. No one else is close.

Significantly, Warren is also popular among Democrats who don’t — yet — name her as a first choice. A recent poll found that 75% of Democratic voters have a favourable impression of her, up from 53% in January. Among Democrats, she also has lowest disapproval rate of the main candidates — 11% to Biden’s 22%. Warren’s fundraising is also on fire. She passed a million donors in July, lending credibility to her pledge to run without corporate money.

This looks different from Sanders’s surge in 2016. Prediction markets never gave Sanders above a 20% chance of winning the nomination. In contrast, the online betting market PredictIt has Warren as the clear favourite, with a 46% chance of victory to Biden’s 22%. PredictIt also gives Warren a 33% chance of winning the presidency itself. Trump is on 40%.

What’s going on? The answer is that Warren has emerged as a very effective candidate. She exudes not just an energy that belies her age — 70 — but wit. Suppose, she was asked by a suspiciously well-groomed man in Los Angeles last week, a supporter approached her and said: “Senator, I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman.” How would she respond?

“Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that,” Warren replied. “And I’m going to say: ‘Well, then just marry one woman. I’m cool with that.’ [Waits for the laughter to subside] Assuming you can find one.” Hillary Clinton could never work a crowd like that.

True, Trump’s campaign team sees Warren as more beatable than Biden. That is precisely why it has gone after Biden so aggressively. “Sleepy Joe” is just the kind of candidate Trump has to worry about when it comes to the key swing voters in the key swing states (hint: not well-groomed Californians). The people who did not show up for Clinton in 2016 — white working-class “deplorables” who had voted for Barack Obama, as well as African-Americans — could easily opt for Biden over Trump.

By comparison, Warren is a perfect target for a populist campaign. Not only is she a former Harvard professor — a toxic affiliation in most of middle America. She also clearly exaggerated her Native American ancestry in order to advance her academic career. (She listed herself as belonging to a minority in the Association of American Law Schools legal directory from 1986 to 1995; changed her ethnicity from white to Native American at Pennsylvania University in 1989; and agreed to be listed as Native American when she taught at Harvard.) But a DNA test published last year revealed, embarrassingly, that Warren is no more than one-64th Native American.

What’s more, Warren is a candidate far to the left of Biden on a range of key policy issues. She supports a “Medicare for all” system that would replace private health insurance. She has proposed a 2% wealth tax on the very rich (those with fortunes above $50m, or £40m). And she wants to crack down on anticompetitive behaviour by the big banks, returning retail banking to community banks and credit unions.

Warren also has her own version of the green new deal. “On my first day as president,” she recently declared, “I will sign an executive order that puts a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. And I will ban fracking — everywhere.” Oh, and let’s not forget big tech: she plans to break up Facebook.

So it will not be hard for Trump to run against Pocahontas the socialist. With the usual incumbent’s advantage and a favourable electoral college map, he ought to win. But I agree with PredictIt. This is going to be close.

The key variable will be the state of the economy — and this is where things get interesting. At some point, Wall Street is going to wake up to the implications of Warren’s rise. True, most of her programme could be enacted only if the Democrats won the Senate as well as the White House and proceeded to kill the filibuster. Is that impossible? No.

That means that four large sectors of the economy are in the firing line: the pharmaceutical industry, the banks, oil and gas and big tech. That is a pretty big chunk of the main stock market indices.

As investors digest the rising probability of a Warren presidency, I predict a Wall Street sell-off. Businesses in the targeted sectors are going to cut investment. And that, in turn, is going to lower growth. Three years ago, Trump ran on a promise to double the growth rate. But already the economy is projected by the International Monetary Fund to grow by just 1.9% next year. If it tips over into a recession, Trump is done.

Professor Ray Fair of Yale has a simple model for US elections that has a pretty good track record. If there is a recession in 2020, the model predicts a 49% vote share for the Democratic candidate. It’s hard to see how the electoral college could save Trump in that scenario. (Remember, the winner got less than 50% in four out of the past seven elections.)

In other words, if Warren establishes herself as the Democratic frontrunner, there is a real chance that Trump’s presidency could enter a doom loop. The better her chances become, the worse the stock market and the economy do, the better her chances become.

Meanwhile, make no mistake: Trump is in deeper trouble today than he ever was during Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Not only is the Ukraine scandal metastasising. It is also clearly typical of the way the president deals with his foreign counterparts — brazenly seeking personal commercial and political advantage from his conduct of foreign policy, even at the cost of undermining his own administration’s strategy.

His base will not desert him, and so the Republican-controlled Senate dare not turn against him. But independent voters are looking askance at Trump. And they are looking afresh at Warren. Can she beat him? Yes, she can.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

Donald Trump’s Chernobyl will nuke him — or his foes

 Impeachment is a political disaster that could blow up either side

I rarely watch television. By the age of 55 you’ve seen all the plots that drama writers will come up with. But I made an exception for Chernobyl, the riveting five-part HBO and Sky miniseries written by Craig Mazin. Anyone who never went to the Soviet Union should be required to watch it. The key point Chernobyl makes is that the chronic inefficiency, corruption and untruthfulness of Soviet life guaranteed that one day a catastrophe such as the explosion of the Chernobyl reactor would happen — and the first impulse of the country’s communist rulers would be to try to cover it up.

The other takeaway of the drama is the rock-hard fortitude and even heroism of so many ordinary Soviet citizens. This was the paradox at the heart of the system: despite its utter wastefulness, it could always summon self-sacrifice.

I was in Kiev a couple of weeks ago for the annual Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference that used to take place in the Black Sea resort until Vladimir Putin annexed it along with the rest of Crimea.

I have a soft spot for Ukraine. Surely no country witnessed more suffering in the 20th century. A battlefield in two world wars, it also bore the brunt of Joseph Stalin’s manmade famine — the mass murder of the peasantry in the name of “collectivisation” that Ukrainians remember as the Holodomor. Chernobyl contaminated with radiation land that was already suffused with blood.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has struggled to cleanse itself of history’s many taints. In successive revolutions in 2004 and 2014 Ukrainians took to the streets to protest against the two main threats to their nation’s independence: Russia to the east and corruption within. Today, Russia occupies not only Crimea but also Donbass. And oligarchs still dominate both economics and politics.

Ukrainians look like Europeans but — as a survey for this year’s YES revealed — they are closer to Brazilians in their attitudes. They are sick of the status quo. And they are willing to gamble on a complete political outsider in the hope of radical change.

Enter Volodymyr Zelensky. Other populist politicians have begun as entertainers. Zelensky is unique in having been elected president after playing the role of president in a political sitcom, Servant of the People.

Diminutive but dynamic, Zelensky radiates ingenuous bonhomie. At the end of the first day of the YES conference, he took to the stage with the cast of his old comedy show. The only shadow over the merriment was cast by his former business partner and probable financial backer, the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.

Now into the Ukrainian tragicomedy wanders another transplant from entertainment to politics, Donald Trump. It was not news to me that Trump had been taking an interest in Ukrainian politics. In May it was reported that Rudy Giuliani — the president’s personal lawyer — had been seeking to meet Ukrainian officials.

The story then was that Giuliani was pushing the new Ukrainian government to investigate allegations involving Joe Biden, the former US vice-president, and his son Hunter’s well-paid job with a Ukrainian energy firm. At YES, Zelensky’s people muttered about a rather tricky phone call in July with Trump.

We now know just how tricky that call was because a memorandum of it was released on Wednesday, after a formal complaint by an as yet unidentified CIA whistleblower.

“I will say,” Trump tells Zelensky, “that we do a lot for Ukraine. We spend a lot of effort and a lot of time . . . I wouldn’t say that it’s reciprocal necessarily because things are happening that are not good but the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”

Now comes the first ask: “I would like you to do us a favour,” says Trump, “. . . because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike... I guess you have one of your wealthy people . . . The server, they say Ukraine has it... I would like to have the attorney-general call you or your people and I would like you to get to the bottom of it.”

Trump is alluding to a conspiracy theory that officials in the previous Ukrainian government sought to help Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. (CrowdStrike was the firm the Democrats hired to investigate the hacking of their emails.) Zelensky responds that one of his assistants has spoken to Giuliani “just recently” and that he will see him if he comes to Ukraine.

Then comes the second ask: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair . . . The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney-general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it . . . It sounds horrible to me.”

The question is how far this exchange — combined with the revelation that $391m (£318m) of US military aid to Ukraine was withheld just before the call, and the whistleblower’s crucial allegation that records of other such presidential calls have been improperly classified — provides a new basis for the impeachment that the Democratic rank-and-file, the liberal media and conservative never-Trumpers have so long craved, and which the hotly anticipated report by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, failed to deliver.

If they are right, then this will be Trump’s Chernobyl: the catastrophe that was bound to befall a chronically inefficient, corrupt and untruthful government. In this view, he and Giuliani already show signs of melting down and not even a brigade of heroic Fox News anchors can douse the fire. The House will vote for impeachment. Then it only needs 20 Republican senators to defect...

Wait, did you say 20? At a time when Republican voters are solidly opposed to impeachment and inclined to believe the president’s cries of “fake news” and “witch-hunt”? There’s another, equally plausible scenario in which impeachment guarantees that Trump dominates the US news for the next three to six months, marginalising all his Democratic rivals except for Biden, who’ll be fielding questions about his son’s business dealings until he concedes to Elizabeth Warren, whom Trump can beat.

“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth,” says the morose scientist Valery Legasov in Chernobyl. “Sooner or later that debt is paid.” Websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck keep a tally of presidential lies. Perhaps their efforts will one day be rewarded and a large debt paid. But the key to Trump’s power is not the untrue things he says. It is the outrageous things he openly does — and gets away with. Thus far.

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford

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