As the political storm continues over the question of whether the contents of a July 25 phone call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy ought to result in Trump’s impeachment, scholars from the Bush School of Government and Public Service held a panel discussion on the potential foreign policy, domestic and political implications of impeachment inside Rudder Tower Monday evening.
Lori Taylor, head of the department of public service and administration, served as moderator for the panel, which included former U.S. ambassador Larry Napper, assistant professor Justin Bullock and Gregory Gause, who is the head of the department of international affairs.
The impeachment inquiry, which began in late September, centers on whether Trump and the U.S. withheld military aid until Zelenskiy’s officials investigated former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden.
Bullock explained some of the basics of impeachment, which requires a majority vote in the U.S. House but does not remove a sitting president from office. He likened it to an indictment in the criminal justice system.
“I think people should know that there is an inquiry going already, and that the House will continue to investigate,” Bullock said after the forum.
Two U.S. presidents have been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither man was convicted by the U.S. Senate, which requires approval from two-thirds of the upper chamber.
Panelists spent time unpacking the sociopolitical climate during and after the Clinton impeachment, as well as the Watergate investigation that resulted in Richard Nixon’s August 1974 resignation.
“Does impeachment affect the ability of a president to conduct foreign policy? Basically, I would say no,” Gause said near the start of his remarks, as more than 50 people listened. “But does it impact the choices that a president makes in foreign policy? And there I would say yes.”
The panelists said public support for the impeachment investigation has climbed in polls, with roughly half of the country supporting impeachment and subsequent removal of Trump from office.
Taylor said following the panel that the Bush School hoped to inform the audience, which included a few dozen A&M students, and the broader public — and showcase the school’s experts.
Bullock said he thought that the news cycle fallout from the Ukraine phone call could adversely affect Biden’s chances at the Democratic nomination. He also said that, despite the low likelihood of the Republican-led U.S. Senate voting to convict the president and remove him from office, there could be other reasons that Democrats might vote to impeach Trump.
“[The Democrats] will be able to say he was impeached, and that has some political points, and then the Republicans can say, ‘Yes, he was indicted, but we found him innocent,’ so it’ll be competing talking points,” Bullock said.
Bullock then said impeachment, for Democrats, could be more about sending messages both to those in the U.S. and to allies and observers abroad.
“Given some of the pieces of evidence and some of the accusations made against the president and how they’ve played out over time, one argument is that they need to be investigated,” Bullock said. “Because the message that it sends to the rest of the world is that this is a land of institutions with laws, and that no one is above the law, and so we’re going to investigate these claims to see what there is to them.”
Gause said one’s answer to the question of whether impeachment is a “good idea” for Democrats likely depends on what one thinks is the best way to turn out voters and win elections.
“If you win elections by mobilizing your base, Democrats would say, ‘Our base wants this guy impeached and convicted, and even if we can’t convict him, we’re gonna impeach him because we’ve got the votes, and he deserves it — and that will make our base happy and more Democrats will come out and vote,’” Gause said. “If your theory of the case is that in 2018, the Democrats took back the House by winning in suburban districts that were previously Republican and are very purple ... if that’s your theory, maybe impeachment doesn’t help you.”
Napper said since Nixon’s presidency, the presidential candidate in each election with less foreign policy experience won the race, with the exception of George H.W. Bush’s 1988 victory over Michael Dukakis.
“Foreign policy basically doesn’t win or lose American elections,” Napper said.
Napper encouraged attendees to compare transcripts of George H.W. Bush’s voluminous correspondence with foreign leaders and the rough transcript of the call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
“If you are inclined to say this is business as usual, and you are inclined to say this is what all presidents do, let me make a suggestion to you,” Napper said, before encouraging people to compare the two presidents’ communications.
“You will never see what you saw in that conversation with Zelenskiy,” Napper said of Bush’s correspondence.