Impeachment is a rare remedy for addressing presidential misconduct and has never actually resulted in the removal of a chief executive from office.
It’s fast becoming every American liberal’s rallying cry: “Impeach Trump!” For many who still refuse to accept that the former reality TV star was elected America’s 45th president last November, it’s a comforting thought that he might somehow be driven from office – and soon. But it’s not likely to happen.
Impeachment, though often bandied about as an option for toppling an unpopular president, is extremely rare. It’s happened only three times in US history. And it has never actually resulted in a president’s removal from office.
Richard Nixon resigned under the threat of impeachment in 1974, after the House Judiciary committee voted in favor of the measure. Andrew Johnson in 1867 and Bill Clinton in 1995 actually suffered the first stage of an impeachment process — a full roll-call vote by the House of Representatives with a majority in favor.
However, neither man was impeached. Under the Constitution, the House only has the authority to send the matter to US Senate, which holds the equivalent of a “trial.” However, it takes a two-thirds majority – not a simple majority — to find the president “guilty.” In the case of Johnson and Clinton, there simply weren’t enough votes to have either man removed.
In fact, impeachment is not so much a legal question as a political one. Whether a sitting president’s misdeeds qualify as “high crimes and misdemeanors” – as stated in the Constitution – is always a matter of dispute. During Watergate, Nixon’s activities, from organizing burglaries to orchestrating a cover-up and obstructing justice by firing the special prosecutor, probably met the constitutional standard. Had Nixon tried to stay on, he would likely have been impeached.
There was far less agreement in the case of Bill Clinton. His tawdry affair with Monica Lewinsky — and his repeated attempts to deny it — was certainly considered by many to be a grievous breach of the public trust. But was the affair or his attempted cover-up really a “high crime and misdemeanor” justifying his removal from office?
The Democrats didn’t think so. In fact, they did their best to block an impeachment process driven by a Republican-controlled House that was hell-bent on humiliating Clinton. The effort was led by a leading Senate Democrat, Dianne Feinstein, who sought to have Clinton “censured” instead. Censure is considered a vote of strong disapproval – indeed, an institutional “rebuke.”
Censure was used quite effectively to silence Sen. Joe McCarthy during the anticommunist “witch-hunts” of the 1950s. However, impeachment, unlike censure, implies actual legal culpability — and a profound diminishing of one’s authority to serve and to lead.
In theory, the remedy of censure, as opposed to impeachment, could well arise in the case of Trump. Right now, the Democrats lack the votes in either the House or Senate to impeach Trump should Republicans choose to vote along party lines. While a few GOP members are joining the Democratic chorus to impeach Trump, there are far too few currently to make much difference.
With the current partisan balance in Congress, some 23 GOP members of the House – and 19 GOP senators — would have to defect to sustain an impeachment of Trump.
One reason that is highly unlikely – aside from sheer partisanship — is that the weight of evidence against Trump is still far shakier than many critics seem to realize. What we actually know, factually, and what Democrats and their media allies presume we know, or suspect, are two quite different things.
Trump’s campaign was not the first to engage foreign officials too closely – Clinton himself did the same with the Chinese in 1996. John Kerry played serious footsie with the Taiwanese in 2004. The Russians clearly tried to manipulate the outcome of last November’s election. However, even if there was ongoing some tacit “collusion” – and the evidence is actually still shaky at best – that alone does not constitute a crime.
In fact, it is not even clear that Trump can be held responsible as president for activities that might have occurred prior to the election and his assumption of power. Impeachment applies to presidential not pre-presidential activities. What has Trump done in his first four months in office that could sustain an impeachment charge?
Some critics, including most recently Hillary Clinton, have suggested that Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey, amounts to “obstruction of justice.” But that’s still a matter for the current special prosecutor, former FBI director Robert Muller, to decide. And based on what’s actually known, it seems unlikely that the firing of an official that serves at the leisure of the president – without evidence of more concerted Trump efforts to block an investigation, of which there is none — meets that standard.
One possible outcome of the current imbroglio is that Mueller will find that Trump acted recklessly or carelessly in allowing contacts between his campaign and the Russians to proceed as far as they did – but was otherwise not guilty of any crime. He might even recommend charges against selected campaign officials. That finding could be very damaging to Trump and the GOP in the run-up to the mid-term elections.
But it would not amount to an impeachment threat.
Still, don’t expect Trump‘s critics to give up on impeachment. Democrats are clearly hoping to destabilize and discredit Trump politically to the point where they regain control of the House in 2018. Should that happen — it looks increasingly like a long shot — they will likely start drafting the articles of impeachment and move toward a floor vote.
But unless they also recapture the Senate – which is highly unlikely, in 2018 at least – they won’t be able to have Trump found “guilty.”
Some critics hope that new bombshells about Trump’s involvement with the Russians could emerge in the months ahead, which might lead more senior Republicans to agree to move against Trump. But given the current leaks from deep within the US government, if such bombshells existed, we would likely have heard about them by now.
Face it, Democrats. You’re probably stuck with The Donald.