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Trump hearings flawed but ensure accountability

Instigating the potential downfall of one of the most powerful people in the world is an act of political brinkmanship like few others. Its ornate setting, partisan wrangling, strict rules of engagement, high-pressure witness interrogations bestow it the high drama expected of such an undertaking. Ridding a country of its head of state should be no easy task. At the heart of Donald Trump's impeachment is a constitution that ensures Congress has the means to oust a president or public official who partakes in "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours". It was first wielded against a judge, John Pickering, who was dismissed in 1803 for drunkenness and unlawful rulings.

President Donald TrumpCredit:AP

While Richard Nixon resigned before his impeachment came to an inevitable end, no American president has ever faced the humiliation of being formally dismissed by Congress. Precedent sits comfortably on Mr Trump's side. But that does not erode the intrinsic purpose of the process, quite the opposite. Holding elected officials to account is deeply embedded in America's founding principles.

As former president Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address so elegantly evoked, the need for "government of the people, by the people, for the people" underpins America's ideal to be controlled by its own citizens who defend the freedoms, liberties, and rights of its people. This has been on full display in the opening days, with several senior diplomats risking their careers and reputations by taking on the inevitable grilling from Republicans and Democrats to give voice to their deep concerns over Mr Trump's bid to persuade a foreign leader to publicly investigate his political opponent.

The process certainly has its flaws. Due to its partisan nature, impeachments have tended to harden, not assuage, the political divide. While there is much talk of following the facts, the final decision will most likely come down to the comparative strength of the parties in the Senate rather than any real demonstrations of innocence or guilt. While Republicans initially defended Mr Trump on the grounds of scant first-hand evidence of his attempts to arm twist using foreign aid, as more details have emerged of Mr Trump's culpability, they have fallen back to taking aim at the process. But if we compare it to the Australian parliamentary system, where leaders have in recent times been dispatched behind closed doors after months of backroom manoeuvrings, there is much to be said for a system that puts its deliberations under the full glare of the public eye. Even if that glare is strikingly partisan and unprecedented.

This is the first attempt to take down a president in a world of 24/7 coverage disseminated via a vast array of traditional and new digital platforms competing for public attention. In this world, Mr Trump is his own staunchest advocate, amplifying his excoriating attacks on Twitter, while Fox News channels those criticisms to a broad conservative audience willing to take umbrage at the "witch-hunt". For those ready to dispense with him, there is no shortage of news and commentary to reflect their perspective. When delegates gathered to debate a new American constitution, everyone knew that George Washington would be the first president.

As Benjamin Franklin put it, “The first man put at the helm will be a good one,” but with some trepidation about who would follow, he argued for an impeachment clause by arguing that “nobody knows what sort may come afterwards.” Now America does know, and why it was so important that clause be included.

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