An immense effort was made to remove Bill Clinton from the presidency in the late 1990s, culminating in the first impeachment trial of a US president in 131 years. Intimate details of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, about which Clinton was accused of lying under oath, were probed and published by the far-right prosecutor Ken Starr. This let loose a flood of jokes and salacious fodder for the tabloids. At one point it seemed as if the question of perjury might hinge on what constitutes "sexual relations"; whereupon the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association decided to publish an article based on survey data showing that 59 percent of college students did not consider oral sex as having "had sex." He was promptly fired, after 17 years at the helm of the prestigious medical journal -- although some maintained that his overseers were taking advantage of the political situation to get rid of someone who had also published articles favoring universal, single payer health care and other things not dear to the hearts of the AMA.
The current attempt to remove President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil bears many resemblances to the Clinton impeachment episode. It is led by a group of politicians who seek to overturn the results of national elections and steer the nation in a different, right-wing direction; and the elected president has not committed an impeachable offense. Missing, of course, is the sex scandal -- and the charges are so unsexy that most people don't even know what the president is being impeached for, and it's not that easy to figure it out.
Most importantly, a crime is missing; even Bill Clinton's enemies could at least come up with the alleged crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice. But Dilma Rousseff's impeachers have no such criminal violation to even allege. This was the conclusion last week of the federal prosecutor, Ivan Claudio Marx, who was assigned to investigate the offenses for which Dilma is about to stand trial in Brazil's Senate. He determined that Dilma did not break the law in her handling of the public budget. The impeachment centers around her decision to delay payments to the state banks, which allowed the government to maintain the appearance of staying within a targeted fiscal balance in its accounts. Marx determined that this was not a crime, because it was not a "credit transaction" that would require congressional approval.
In a society where the rule of law is in effect, that would spell the end of the effort to remove the elected president. But press reports -- inasmuch as they even bothered to report on the prosecutor's conclusion -- seem to indicate that pro-impeachment forces are acting as though the law, and the prosecutor's statement, are irrelevant. They are pressing full steam ahead for the Senate to reverse the results of the October 2014 presidential elections. And as we now know from leaked transcripts of phone conversations, some of the leaders are doing it to prevent further investigation of their own alleged corruption.
Can they get away with it? Much depends on whether the media -- and the public -- will now accept that a group of corrupt politicians can remove a democratically elected president, without any legal basis for doing so.
Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and the president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also the author of the new book "Failed: What the 'Experts' Got Wrong About the Global Economy" (2015, Oxford University Press). This post first appeared on his blog The World in Transition: Economics & Politics. You can subscribe to his columns here.
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