Student Association Senate hears testimony on presidential power struggle

Media Credit: Sophia Goedert | Staff Photographer

SA Vice President Yan Xu and Director of Communications Aiza Saeed withdrew their removal votes of Zidouemba in separate emails to the chief justice last weekend.

After a weekend filled with presidential chaos, eight witnesses testified in the Student Association Senate’s special session Tuesday and Wednesday night, with some saying that SA President Christian Zidouemba created a “hostile” work environment and raised cabinet members’ concerns over his capacity to complete his duties.

Senators called for an emergency session of the senate to shed light on the executive power struggle after executive cabinet members unanimously voted to remove Zidouemba last Friday, a decision that they have since revoked after two cabinet members withdrew their removal votes, leaving Zidouemba as the de facto president. The featured witnesses offered various explanations for the incident, ranging from miscommunication and confusion to mistrust of Zidouemba’s ability to carry out his role.

Dylan Basescu, a witness and the former legislator general, said he was concerned that Zidouemba would “hurriedly fire” cabinet members involved in Friday’s removal vote, which required the vice president, treasurer, legislator general, communications director and the chief of staff to vote for removal unanimously.

“I heard from other members that they were concerned that Christian was issuing either veiled or explicit threats to fire them,” he said.

Some executive cabinet members testified that they felt pressured to vote to remove Zidouemba from office during Friday’s cabinet meeting and, if given the choice again, would not have voted to remove Zidouemba. SA Vice President Yan Xu and Director of Communications Aiza Saeed withdrew their removal votes in separate emails to the chief justice this weekend.

Zidouemba said during the meeting’s presidential report that he wanted cabinet members to express their opinions in a respectful environment free from the threat of termination.

“I have never intended to fire anybody in my cabinet,” Zidouemba said. “And I have always appreciated the different views that I have in my cabinet.”

The incident resulted in at least seven members of the SA’s executive branch resigning, including Basescu and former Chief of Staff Cordelia Scales, who both voted to remove Zidouemba from the presidency, and who other witnesses also alleged coordinated the removal vote.

The senate’s special session meeting comes after community members called on officials to fire Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas from his duties as a GW adjunct faculty member after he voted to overturn Roe v. Wade and repeal federal abortion protections. Officials rejected their petition and doubled down on his employment status, which prompted SA members and student leaders to sign and release a letter urging officials to “rethink” their decision not to fire Thomas.

Edyth Koenigs, a witness and a former senior policy advisor, said she did not force anyone, including Zidouemba, to sign the open letter sent to the University administration in response to the University’s decision to retain Thomas on the faculty.

They added that Zidouemba was “condescending” toward cabinet members and threatened to terminate them.

“I believe it’s an abuse of power,” they said.

Scales, a witness and a former chief of staff, said she hoped to bring “harmony” between governing branches in her role. They said Zidouemba called two mandatory emergency cabinet meetings to discuss the open letter and the Thomas decision with less than 24 hours’ notice.

“I understand that in situations, there are crises, but I also understand that respect goes both ways,” they said. “And the respect of cabinet members’ time is very important.”

Scales said Zidouemba’s “increasingly erratic behavior” and threats of termination caused the removal vote.

“We felt that it was like a time bomb,” they said.

Keanu Rowe, a witness and the current chief of staff, said he did not receive any correspondence about the removal vote until the morning after it happened.

Rowe said he thought future cabinets should delineate an assistant or deputy chief of staff to make a potential Article 15 vote clearer.

He added that to his knowledge that prior to the Friday vote, no one questioned Zidouemba’s capacity to act as president.

“Christian won this past election off of a platform of community-minded leadership and advocating for the underrepresented here at GW,” he said. “Thus far he has upheld his promise and has put the greater good of students at the top of his agenda.”

Two witnesses did not appear to testify. Maddie Billet, the former executive secretary of advocacy, and Sakhshi Sharma, the former executive secretary of diversity, equity and inclusion, did not attend the meeting.

Senators originally planned to vote on the Cabinet Statement Override Act, which would have certified Zidouemba as the legitimate president, but after an hourlong, private executive session during Wednesday’s meeting, the legislation’s sponsor, Ian Ching, ESIA-U, removed the legislation from the docket.

Student Court Chief Justice Devin Eager said the court is not currently deliberating on the legitimacy of the removal vote because no one has filed a lawsuit.

“These events caused great confusion and undue controversy,” he said. “At times, people were unsure who the current president of the Student Association was.”

Zach Blackburn and Nick Pasion contributed reporting.

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