Lately, there has been a large amount of talk about impeaching current President of the United States, Donald Trump. Is this possible, and what does impeachment mean? It should be observed that impeachment is possible, but it is a largely political matter. This means that it depends a lot more on which way the wind is blowing than on the specific facts at hand, unless those facts become so egregiously damning that no one can ignore them any longer.
What is the likelihood Trump is impeached?
Impeachment is not actually a legal matter. As Andrew McCarthy has written:
“The standard for impeachment, the commission of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors, ‘ is not concerned with criminal offenses found in the penal statute books and suitable for courtroom prosecution. It relates instead to the president’s high fiduciary duty to the American people and allegiance to our system of government” (paragraph 12).
It is thus fundamentally a matter of whether the president loses general trust, or whether it can be demonstrated that he has been compromised in such a way that he acting against the interests of the United States.
Given this standard, it becomes clear that there are a lot of politics involved in the question of impeachment. Trump is not going to be impeached, unless there is evidence of something so deplorable that even substantial numbers of Republicans in congress determine that he is no longer worth defending. Moreover, this would have to match up with the general mood of the public, to prevent the impression of an elite coup against a populist president.
The standard for impeachment is not “objective” per se. It largely hinges on a political calculus of what and how much people are willing to tolerate. If Trump loses all support in congress as well as general public, this would set the grounds for impeachment. At this point, it is not clear that even demonstrable collusion would cause Trump’s supporters to turn against him.
Trump has survived many scandals that no one thought he would be able to. If, for example, Trump decided to unilaterally pardon both himself and everyone else under investigation by Mueller, then this could be an alarming trigger for impeachment. It would come across even to many Republicans as a blatantly self-serving and un-American use of presidential power.
The impeachment process
Assuming that there was in fact solid ground and support for impeaching Trump, how would the process work? One thing to bear in mind is that getting impeached is not the same thing as getting removed from office. This is because technically speaking, impeachment is analogous to indictment, not conviction (Whittington). Impeachment is conducted by the House of Representatives, and it only requires a simple majority (50 percent).
If the Democrats were to win back the House in the next midterm election, then impeachment would almost certainly be inevitable. It’s no secret Democrats strongly dislike Trump. If they have a majority in the House, they could get him impeached without a single Republican vote.
Actual removal from office, though, requires conviction in the Senate for the charges brought by impeachment. And in this process, a two-thirds majority (67 percent) is needed. This means that it would be impossible to remove Trump from office on strictly partisan lines, as it is currently inconceivable that the Democrats could win that many seats in the Senate.
Trump’s political capital would have to be so spent that a substantial number of Republicans—about one-third of the caucus, —decides that they would like to have Trump removed from office at the same time that every Democrat also felt the same way. Removing a president from office is difficult, and it has been designed that way intentionally. This is to ensure that a president is not removed from office for the purposes of cynical political calculus, but because he truly deserves it.
The difference between impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate can be seen in the case of former president Bill Clinton. Clinton was impeached for perjury regarding the Monica Lewinsky scandal. However, he was still able to serve out his entire term in office, because the Senate declined to convict him on the impeachment charges.
On the other hand, Richard Nixon was impeached in relation to the Watergate scandal, and he actually did leave presidential office. He was not convicted in the Senate, because he resigned before that could happen. Nixon knew that if he let the process go on, he almost surely would be convicted, and likely felt that this would be more disgraceful than simply resigning.
What would happen if Trump was impeached and removed?
Given the chaotic nature of Trump’s presidency, it is not inconceivable that he may eventually would be removed from office. In the gambling world as of August 2017, for example, the odds were placed at 53 percent that Trump would not complete his full first term as president (Kentish, paragraph 1). In this context, it is probably worth thinking about what would happen if Trump were in fact removed from office. This would set off a protocol that has only seldom been used in American history.
Presidential succession is described in the following way by the 25th Amendment to the Constitution:
“In the case of the removal of the President from office or of his death or resignation, the Vice President shall become President” (United States, section 1).
Later legislation has elaborated the line of succession after the Vice President; that includes the Speaker of the House, the President pro tempore of the Senate, and then various members of the Cabinet, starting with the Secretary of State. In any event, if Trump were to be removed from office, this would mean that current Vice President Mike Pence would assume the presidency.
The current order of succession for the U.S. Presidency
- Vice President
- Speaker of the House of Representatives
- President pro tempore of the Senate
- Secretary of State
- Secretary of the Treasury
- Secretary of Defense
- Attorney General
- Secretary of the Interior
- Secretary of Agriculture
- Secretary of Commerce
- Secretary of Labor
- Secretary of Health and Human Services
- Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
- Secretary of Energy
- Secretary of Education
- Secretary of Veterans Affairs
- Secretary of Homeland Security
Ironically, this is one reason why Trump may not be removed from office. Democrats in office are not very fond of Mike Pence, either. Many of them even argue that Pence could be potentially worse. Whereas Trump’s chaotic temperament prevents him from being fully effective in implementing his policy agenda, Pence would govern like a traditional, competent Republican, and he would have much greater leverage within Congress to implement his agenda.
It must be admitted that the Democrats are very hypocritical in this regard. On one hand, they have tried to argue that Trump is a unique existential threat to the fabric of the United States; but on the other, have also suggested that a traditional, levelheaded Republican (i.e. Pence) would somehow be worse. They really cannot have it both ways.
The 25th Amendment
The 25th Amendment also delineates another way that a president could be removed from office. This can be done through a vote of his Cabinet regarding the capacity of the president to faithfully execute his duties (United States, section 4). This provision was probably meant to refer to physical capability, but it has also been interpreted as referring to mental capability.
Some Trump detractors have hoped that the Cabinet would decide that Trump is too mentally unstable to serve as the president of the nation. This seems like wishful thinking on their part, given that Trump himself is the one who appointed his Cabinet. It is unlikely that these cabinet members, who were appointed among other things for their loyalty to Trump, would all of a sudden turn around and declare him incompetent.
Moreover, even if this were to occur, Trump would have the prerogative to appeal to Congress, where a two-thirds vote in both chambers would be needed to uphold the Cabinet’s decision. This is even less likely to happen.
Why people are discussing impeaching Trump?
Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to investigate the potential collusion of the Trump presidential campaign with Russia, in the aftermath of Trump’s impetuous firing of the former FBI director James Comey. Recently, Mueller’s team indicted Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, both of whom were associated with the Trump campaign.
What does the indictment say?
First, it is important to understand that the indictment of Manafort and Gates was not directly related to the Trump presidential campaign. The charges are actually related to money laundering and conspiracy to hide money from the American government and thus not pay taxes on it (Eisen, Bookbinder, and Berke, paragraph 2). These activities involved Russia and Ukraine.
They are in fact criminal activities, but they are not connected to Trump’s campaign. They turned up because Mueller was investigating everything having to do with Trump and his associates.
It is important to not overstate the direct significance of the indictment. As of yet, nothing has shown that the Trump campaign itself, with Trump’s own awareness, colluded with Russia in any way. What is clear, is that both Manafort and Gates engaged in independent criminal activities, and that they were also central to Trump’s campaign.
Manafort was Trump’s campaign chairman, and Gates was a deputy. This means that although there is no proof that Trump’s campaign engaged in collusion, it has now been proven Trump was hanging around with some very unsavory characters and gave them a lot of power within his campaign.
The implications for Trump
Again, as of right now, there is no reason to believe that the Manafort indictment will lead to an impeachment of Trump. Those who wanted him impeached before the indictment are the same that want him impeached now. It is unlikely that the indictment itself has changed any minds in this regard. This association with criminals is one of the most significant implications of the Manafort indictment for Trump himself.
As Eisen et al. have noted:
“it is now clear that President Trump closely relied upon Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates when they were engaged in alleged criminal activity. That is a damning indictment of the president’s judgment. Their prosecution will hang over him and his administration for the foreseeable future” (paragraph 3).
Even if no collusion has not been shown to have happened, the question still emerges:
“What was Trump thinking, associating so closely with these people?”
It is difficult to believe that Trump could not have known about what was going on here. At the very least, one could presume that if he remained ignorant of the situation, then it was a willful ignorance. This raises serious questions about the quality of Trump’s judgment.
Moreover, it is worth noting that Mueller has now obtained leverage over Manafort and Gates. The crimes for which they have been indicted are serious and carry significant prison sentences. So, the assumption can be made that Mueller will attempt to offer cooperation deals to Manafort and Gates, such that their punishment will be lessened if they reveal anything and everything they know about the Trump campaign and its potential relationship with Russia.
At this point, then, if Trump actually did know something about collusion with Russia, then he is in danger. The odds are that Mueller will indeed be able to get this information out of Manafort and/or Gates. On the other hand, Trump has repeatedly and vehemently professed his total innocence on this matter. If that is true, then Mueller no information would exist for Muller to discover.
if there is a truth that remains to be revealed, then the indictment has greatly increased the odds that it will in fact come out. But that is a big “if,” and it is possible that there may be nothing to the collusion story. At best, Trump could be seen as incompetent, and at worst, malicious.
It is important to keep this point in mind when parsing the media narrative of the indictment of Manafort and Gates:
“While no one can be sure what the next steps in this legal and political tangle will involve, the impact of Monday’s events did little to advance the collusion narrative” (Tobin, paragraph 4).
There are surely a lot of people who want to see Trump fall; and this desire could easily bias the media coverage of the indictment. The simple fact is that as of yet, there is nothing in this story that implicates Trump. Indeed, from the perspective of a Trump supporter, the indictment could even be read as a partial vindication: after investigating for so long, this was the best that Mueller could come up with?
Perhaps more damning than the indictments against Manafort and Gates, is the revelation that low-level staffer, George Papadopoulos had already pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and likely has been cooporating with Muller gathering evidence against Manafort, Gates, and likely Trump as well. Papadopoulos has been cooporating with Muller, since his July arrest the unsealed indictments show.
The unsealed documents show that Papadopolous has confessed to setting up meetings between the Russian government, and the Trump campaign to discuss emails damaging to Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton.
The fact that Muller has not yet been able to directly implicate Trump in anything could be taken to suggest that no case for collusion is possible. Or, more likely Mueller is still building that case. Only time will tell. Either way, it is important to understand what the indictment of Manafort and Gates does and does not imply for the president.
It is at the very least problematic that Trump was even associated with these characters in the first place. Moreover, if Manafort and Gates do in fact have information that could implicate Trump, then there is a good chance that Mueller will be able to squeeze it out of them. Whether Trump is innocent or not in the matter of collusion is objectively impossible to say at the present time.
Given Trump’s loose habits with facts, his own protestations of innocence surely cannot be taken at face value. On the other hand, there are also a lot of people who are more than willing to think the worst of Trump, often on the basis of the flimsiest of evidence. It is thus important to not get swayed by partisanship and keep one’s focus on the actual facts at hand. And as far as those facts are concerned, the best that can be said for now is that we do not really know what Mueller is planning, or how the Manafort indictment will play out for Trump.
Would Trump ever resign like Nixon?
If there’s one thing we all know about Trump by now, it is that he never declines to hit back at someone that he perceives as having hit him first. Another thing we know is that he never accepts personal fault. Given this temperament, it is inconceivable that Trump would ever resign, even if the circumstances were such that his forcible removal from office began to seem inevitable.
Nixon resigned before he could be ejected because he had a sense of shame; he did not want to be seen as a president who was fired, and he thus figured that it would be better quit. For better or for worse, Trump does not appear to ever feel shame. It would thus be impossible to imagine a scenario in which he would just fold and walk away peacefully, as opposed to dragging the whole process into the gutter and contesting it to the bitter end.
Moreover, it is easy to imagine what he would say, if things actually came to this head. He could suggest that he was right about the establishment “swamp” all along, and that the political and media elites were now trying to stage a coup against the democratically elected president. Not only would this narrative actually seem plausible, it would be accepted without question by the base of Trump supporters who have always been behind him.
This would be an unmitigated catastrophe for the well-being of the nation as a whole; the consequences may well be even worse than just letting a delegitimized president complete his term in office. America is already more fractured than it has been in a long time, and removing the president from office could push it past a breaking point.
No matter how one feels about Trump, then, it would probably be prudent to accept that he is in fact the democratically elected president of the nation. If the current situation is bad, there is nothing to do but make the best of it, and try to do better in the future.
Eisen, Norman, Noah Bookbinder, and Barry Berke. “Manafort Indictment is Bad News for Trump.” New York Times. 30 Oct. 2017. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. .
Kentish, Ben. “Odds Slashed on Donald Trump Being Forced from Office Before End of First Term.” Independent. 11 Aug. 2017. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. .
McCarthy, Andrew C. “Trump, Russia, and the Misconduct of Public Men.” National Review. 12 Jul. 2017. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. .
Tobin, Jonathan S. “The Politics of Assumption.” National Review. 1 Nov. 2017. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. .
United States. “U.S. Constitution: Amendments XI-XXVII.” The Avalon Project. 1967. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. .
Walsh, Joan. “Why Mike Pence Is Worse than Donald Trump.” The Nation. 22 Aug. 2017. .
Whittington, Keith E. “How Does Impeachment Work?” The Atlantic. 17 May 2017. Web. 2 Nov. 2017. impeachment-power/527052/>.