Impeaching Trump

File:Andrew Johnson impeachment trial.jpg

Impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson (Wikimedia: Public Domain)

Critics of Donald Trump have been calling for his impeachment since his inauguration. The Russian connection, Emoluments Clause, fears of nepotism and growing concerns over obstruction of justice, especially since the firing of FBI Director James Comey, have fueled this hope. However, the idea of impeaching and then convicting Trump remains little more than a pipe dream for two reasons.

First, nothing has been publicly released that ties Trump to any of the potential charges that could bring down his Presidency. Second, impeachment is a political act, not a criminal one. Being a political act, it needs political pressure, and that presents a significant challenge

The Constitution is clear on impeachment. A President may be impeached and “removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The House of Representatives only needs a majority vote to impeach, but removal from office requires a two-thirds conviction in the Senate.

Several Presidents have committed acts that could be defined as impeachable. Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court’s ruling when he forcibly removed the Cherokee from the Southeast to Oklahoma. Ulysses Grant presided over an enormously corrupt administration, although there is no evidence that he engaged in illegal activities himself. Warren Harding presided over another massively corrupt administration, but he directly allowed it to continue and even aided at least one official at avoiding prosecution. Other Presidents have intentionally misled the American people on major issues, generally of war. James Polk maneuvered to get Mexico to attack American troops. Lyndon Johnson lied about the Gulf of Tonkin incident. George W. Bush may have done the same on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even great Presidents, such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, have used executive orders that were viewed even in their day as overtly unconstitutional. None of these Presidents faced formal impeachment charges.

History provides us some clues on how a future impeachment might develop. The two Presidents who have been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, faced a hostile Congress controlled by the opposing party. Even then, there were not enough votes in the Senate to indict either President. Richard Nixon was not impeached because he resigned before the full House could vote after a House committee recommended impeachment on three counts.

Clearly, any serious attempt to impeach Trump will face a situation significantly different from Johnson, Clinton or Nixon. Trump’s party controls the House, and no President has ever faced impeachment charges when his party controls the House. The Trump Presidency may change that, but it will take a string of extraordinary events. Unfortunately for Trump, that string of events is well on its way. However, anyone who thinks that Trump is going to face impeachment in short order is going to be disappointed. Impeachment is a drawn out process. To consider the possibility of a Trump impeachment is best looked at in historical context of the three Presidents that did face those charges.

Andrew Johnson was a Southerner and Democrat who became President when Lincoln was assassinated. The only reason he was Vice President was because Lincoln sought a unity ticket in the close election campaign of 1864. Johnson was viewed suspiciously by the Radical Republicans after the Civil War because of his Southern ties and Democratic Party allegiance. There were concerns that he would go easy on the defeated Confederate states. There were also concerns that he would sack Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, a Radical Republican. Congress, widely dominated by Republicans, passed the Tenure in Office Act which required Senate approval before any Senate approved federal official could be fired. The Act itself was likely unconstitutional and was significantly amended in 1869 before being repealed in 1887.

Johnson did fire Stanton. That led to 11 articles of impeachment against him. Some charges were ludicrous such as the one that Johnson showed disrespect to Congress by making three speeches critical of that body. Yet, all 11 articles passed the House by an overwhelming 126 to 47 vote. The Senate was also dominated by Republicans with 45 of the 54 Senators being Republicans. With 36 votes needed to convict, many expected Johnson to be removed from office. However, 10 Republicans bucked their party and voted for Johnson’s acquittal. In three votes over several weeks, the Senate voted each time 35-19 to convict. Johnson survived as President by a single vote, although the crisis emasculated his already weak Presidency.

The Johnson impeachment was a pure political act. Yet, despite overwhelming support to remove Johnson and a lopsided Republican majority,  over twenty percent of the Republican senators chose principle over political expediency. The attempt to remove Johnson from office revealed that while impeachment is relatively easy in some situations, conviction is a much harder task to accomplish.

The impeachment of Bill Clinton was also primarily driven by politics. Unlike Johnson, Clinton did give his opponents an argument for impeachment because he misled a grand jury during his Monica Lewinsky testimony. Whether that was justification for impeachment remains a debatable question.

The country was evenly divided on whether to impeach Clinton. That showed in the House impeachment vote. Clinton was impeached 228-206 on perjury to a grand jury and 221-212 on obstruction of justice. He was cleared on two other charges. A handful of Democrats voted for impeachment, and a handful of Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, where 67 votes were needed to convict and remove from office, 45 voted in favor of the perjury charge and 50 for obstruction of justice. All Democrats voted against conviction while 10 Republicans voted against the perjury charge and 5 against the obstruction of justice charge.

As with Johnson, the impeachment of Clinton was more a political act than Constitutional reason. Unlike the Johnson vote in the Senate, there never was any serious doubt that Clinton would be convicted. During the impeachment and trial, most Americans believed that he should not have been impeached and removed from office. Clinton even enjoyed some of the highest approval ratings of any post-war President. As with Johnson, the impeachment of Clinton was more a political act than Constitutional reason, but constitutional principles were not need to save Clinton, public support did.

Richard Nixon’s brush with impeachment is a different story. The Watergate break-in and cover-up represented a significant attempt to subvert the American political system. The Watergate investigation, from the time it broke in June 1972 to Nixon’s resignation in August 1974, covered over two years. It required groundbreaking investigative reporting, grand jury investigations and over four months of House Judiciary Committee proceedings. The Johnson and Clinton impeachments went from a House vote to Senate trial in less time than it took the House committee to pass articles of impeachment. However, the Clinton impeachment was discussed in general terms for months before Congressional action started.

Eventually, the House Judiciary Committee recommended articles of impeachment on three charges against Nixon while dismissing two charges: obstruction of justice passed 27-11, abuse of power 28-10 and contempt of Congress 21-17. All Democrats voted for impeachment while the Republicans split 6-11, 7-10 and 2-15 respectively. Nixon resigned before the full House could take up those charges.

These three attempts at impeachment give a road map on how the impeachment of Trump might go, if it should happen.

With multiple constitutional issues already being raised regarding his conduct in office to his business dealings, a possible Trump impeachment is going to have more similarities with Nixon than Johnson or Clinton. It will also have one major difference from the three other impeachments. Trump’s party is in control of Congress. That means the case against Trump is going to have to be far stronger than it was against Nixon. Even with the extremely strong case against Nixon, most Republicans opposed impeachment. In order to impeach Trump, It will take 10% of the House Republicans to defect for impeachment and 40% of Senate Republicans for conviction. This assumes all Democrats vote in unanimity. This is a feat that will require an overwhelming case.

Nixon enjoyed widespread public support until May 1973. At that point his public approval dipped from a high of 67% earlier in the year to less than 50%. By mid-summer, his approval ratings started to free fall. They plummeted to 40% and shortly after rested at 25% for the rest of his Presidency. Even then it would still take a year to drive him from office.

Trump’s approval ratings has stayed at 40% throughout his short Presidency with a few short spikes and dips. While this is historically low, it is high enough that impeachment has no chance of passing.

It is important to emphasize again that impeachment is a political act. Even in the case of malfeasance of the Nixon caliber, most Republicans stuck with their party’s President. With his approval stuck around 25% and 60% of Americans disapproving, Nixon still had a majority of House Republicans supporting him. Only when the Supreme Court ruled on August 5, 1974, that all the Nixon tapes must be released did the smoking gun that Nixon plotted a cover-up days after the 1972 Watergate break-in become known. Only at that moment did Senate Republicans realize that they did not have enough votes to block the 67 votes need to convict. Nixon then resigned.

It will take a bombshell like this to lead to Trump’s conviction. There would need to be indisputable evidence of Russian collusion, obstruction of justice, corruption or some other illegal activity.

However, there is one more factor that is significant. The 2018 elections are approaching. There is already a feeling that the Democrats may gain a considerable number of House seats. The closer the current investigations approach 2018, the more uneasy Republicans will feel. Although they control Congress and the Presidency, unlike the other impeachment proceedings, Trump remains distrusted among his fellow Republicans because his party registrations have changed over the years and he lacks a reliable adherence to party doctrine. On the other hand, Trump’s Vice-President Mike Pence is a loyal, conservative and reliable Republican. It would be politically feasible to dump a sinking Trump knowing that Pence was the replacement. Republican House members in competitive districts may find it easy to impeach an unpopular President with multiple ethical problems. Senators are more insulated but a Pence Presidency may look enticing when compared to an unpopular, chaotic Trump administration dragging the vote totals down.

If Trump is to be impeached, the polls will be the first sign. A Trump approval rating of 30% and 60% disapproval means that impeachment will become a serious possibility. If Trump’s numbers drop towards 20%, he probably will be gone.

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GMO Labeling: The Right to Know is to Know Nothing

(CC: Daniel Goerhing)

(CC: Daniel Goerhing)

Humans have been manipulating our food crops since the beginning of agriculture.  In the last few decades, those changes have intensified – and, it’s not only because of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Watermelons are seedless and strawberries are giant, but neither are done through in vitro recombinant deoxyribonucleic acid techniques. Seedless watermelons are hybrids that have been around for 50 years, and strawberries are primarily enhanced by a cocktail of chemical and growing procedures. Neither of these is the subject of efforts to label their unnatural states.

No product has been modified more than corn over the millennia. It originally descended from a grass that Native Americans laboriously altered into a large and nutritious plant.  As modern society developed, people took to liking corn as a natural food. Then, GMOs came along. Today, 60-80% of the corn in the United States has been influenced by DNA alterations. Now, it is not considered natural. Yet, it never really was. Corn was the original frankenfood.

GMOs have become like climate change. It has become an ideological tug of war between political opposites who are more determined to win a battle of beliefs than live with the facts of science. In these cases, the gist of the arguments are not about science or what is right for the world, but about corporate giants in the case of GMOs and government intrusion in the case of climate change. If only public debate could start from a Tabula rasa…

At the heart of the current debate on GMOs is a bill by Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo. H.R.1599, the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, known by its detractors as the DARK (Deny Americans the Right to Know) Act. It has passed the House of Representatives and awaits debate and vote in the Senate.

The bill would place uniform standards for GM and non-GM foods, require premarket notification to the FDA for GMOs and forbid states from setting up their own labeling laws (Maine, Connecticut and Vermont now have them). Opponents see this as a friendly bill to Big Ag and everyone’s corporate bogeyman Monsanto. The bill allows voluntary labeling of GM and non-GM foods. Nevertheless, with 90% of Americans wary of GM foods, no one with a grade school marketing degree is going to voluntarily label these foods.

Throughout the opposition’s stances on Pompeo’s bill hovers Monsanto. The chemical giant is like any other multinational corporation. Its goal is to maximize profits. For many on the left, Monsanto has become as synonymous with evil as the Koch brothers. However, for Monsanto or any other company to make profits is not a bad thing. That is as much a part of business for Monsanto as it is for a Mom and Pop grocery store.

Opponents like to claim that Big Food has their hands in the wallets of Pompeo and other politicians. It is not a shocking revelation that a special interest backs friendly politicians. Big Organic, which is not much different from Big Food, does the same. While there may be truth in charges of a corrupt political system, that doesn’t address the merits or criticisms of GMO labeling.

If GMO foods require labeling, then food makers will do what they did in Europe when labeling was required. GMO foods will be removed from packaged foods. That will lead to an increase in the cost of the finished product. It is estimated that a California family would pay $400 more a year. Higher prices will drive GMO products from the shelves and the farms. Is that really what we want?

GMOs are just another step at technologically managing agriculture. They aren’t going away, nor should they. For example, golden rice is a designed, bright yellow rice loaded with Vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency leads to 500,000 children going blind and half that many dying every year around the world. Golden rice is the cure to this horrible affliction.

GMOs promise a cornucopia of benefits. They can be designed to be drought or salt tolerant in a thirsty world. They can create produce that is more plentiful and cheaper. GMOs can have better texture, flavor and nutritional value. They can have a longer shelf life and create a more sustainable agricultural environment.  Genetically modifying plants is the same lineal direction that agriculture has been heading since the beginning of civilization. It is only accelerated by technology.

Some people are worried about the health consequences. Yet, after extensive studies, GMOs have been rendered safe. Many opponents are concerned that DNA pesticides are being bred into plants, making them unsafe to eat. However, plants harbor a vast array of natural pesticides that people are already eating. When those levels are below human toxicity levels, then we eat them. When those levels are high, as in some mushrooms, we consider them poisonous and avoid them. Does anyone seriously think that farmers are going to grow poisonous foods and sell them in the marketplace? No one is selling death cap mushrooms in the supermarkets, and it isn’t going to happen with poisonous GMOs either.

Other critics raise the specter of Monsanto and that plants will have herbicide (specifically glyphosate) resistance. Glyphosate is the lead chemical in Roundup. Here is a legitimate concern. Studies have shown that since the use of GMOs the use of herbicides is up while other pesticides, primarily insecticides, are down. These critics argue that GMOs should be banned or greatly limited because of this threat. That is like banning the automobile because tanks are used to make war. If there is a problem with the over use of herbicides because of GMOs, then that concern should be addressed through legislation by regulating or banning that modification – not by abolishing the entire technology.

The desire to label GMO products does nothing to address these issues. If something is identified as a GMO product on the supermarket shelf, then what does it mean? Is it herbicide resistant or modified to use less water on dry farmland? People who want GMO labeling aren’t going to learn what’s in their food anymore than they are now. What’s in their food is simply the food’s DNA.

H.R. 1599 doesn’t do anything to prevent a company from labeling a non-GMO product as a non-GMO product. This is what organic farmers do to set themselves apart from conventional agriculture. Conventional agricultural products are not identified by what is sprayed on them. Instead, people look for organic products to buy. Non-GMO products should follow the same path. Those who don’t want to eat GMOs can make their decisions just as they do about organic.

The only time products are forced to place warning labels or labels the consumer will view negatively is with products that are proven to have unhealthy side effects, such as cigarettes or alcohol. It is not just unnecessary, but unprecedented that a technology in which no adverse health effects have been identified, must stigmatize itself. It’s time to start thinking smartly about GMOs and not be lead by the irrational fears of sciencephobes.

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The Letter of 47 Senators to Iran Really is Unprecedented

Tom Cotton, R-AR (Public Domain: U.S. Government)

Tom Cotton, R-AR (Public Domain: U.S. Government)

The letter from 47 Republican senators sent to the government of Iran is an unprecedented slap in the face of a sitting President. There is nothing to compare this to. Drafted by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who just came into office, the letter is surprising in that it was able to garner nearly half the Senate, including a number of experienced Senators who should know better, such as John McCain, Mitch McConnell and Orrin Hatch.

In the past, the House has withdrawn funds for Presidential initiatives, like Ronald Reagan’s funding of the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s. Congress pulled the funding, although Reagan’s aides continued to fund the Contras with ingenious efforts such as illegally selling arms to Iran. Another example is when Congress pulled the funding when Richard Nixon extended the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

In 1999, the Senate rejected an international nuclear test ban treaty signed and negotiated by Bill Clinton. The Senate followed that up by expressing their disapproval of Clinton’s bombing campaign in Kosovo amidst the war and disentegration of Yugoslavia. The Senate’s refusal to follow the President’s lead in foreign policy is not unusual. The most prominent example being the Senate rejection of the Treaty of Versailles in 1920.

Congress has often investigated Presidential actions in foreign policy. Iran-Contra is also an example of that. More recently, Congress investigated the Justice Department’s “Fast and Furious” program in Mexico.

However, these are examples involving the powers granted to Congress by the Constitution. The House controls funding so it may pull the purse strings any time that it desires. The Senate must ratify treaties before they can become legal so their vote on the nuclear test ban treaty or even Clinton’s actions in Kosovo are well within their duties.

Even though the President is given great latitude as Commander-in-Chief, it is Congress that has the power to declare war. That lead to the creation of the War Powers Act, primarily in response to Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia in violation of Congress’ approval.

From time-to-time, members of Congress have gone on fact-finding trips to foreign countries. Sometimes, those visits have garnered the ire of Presidents. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to Syria and meet with President Bashar al-Assad in 2007. She was heavily criticized for that. In 1987, then House Speaker Jim Wright met with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. At the time, the Nicaraguan government and the Contra opposition were in negotiations. Wright had a private meeting with Reagan afterwards that is not reported to have been pleasant.

There are big differences between these visits and the letter signed by 47 members of the Senate. Pelosi’s visit was followed by three Republicans who also meet with Assad. Pelosi also claims not to have deviated from Bush’s foreign policy in her meeting. In Wright’s case, he had been active in the Nicaraguan situation for some time, including signing onto Reagan initiatives. The Contras also welcomed Wright to meet with Ortega. Again, there did not appear to be a significant deviation from Wright’s actions and the Reagan administration’s stated policy.

The letter of 47 is a different story. It casts a totally different line in negotiations, treats the President with contempt and seriously undermines one of the most important foreign policy challenges facing Barack Obama.

For 47 senators to write a letter to a foreign government warning them that the negotiations are meaningless unless it is something that the Senate will ratify is unheard of. This is a near majority of the Senate that is interjecting itself into negotiations between the President and a foreign government. Negotiations with foreign governments are primarily a Presidential responsibility, not a Congressional one. To deviate from this well-accepted notion requires careful thought and cautious action.

There is a reason for this. It is nearly impossible for 435 Congressmembers to speak in one voice to a foreign government and negotiate the fine details of something as complicated as the Iranian nuclear negotiations that Obama and our allies are doing now. This is like a business and a union negotiating on a wage deal only to have another business or union pull up a chair and claim they are now part of the negotiations. What these 47 Republican Senators have done is commit one of the biggest political and diplomatic blunders of recent times.

These senators informed the Iranians that unless the Senate ratifies an agreement, then the next President can shift course and ignore any agreement made between the U.S. and Iran while Obama is President. The Iranians are going to look at this and wonder why they want to make any deal with a nation that they don’t trust anyway. What incentive do they have to negotiate when the deal may be reversed once it is ratified?

While overstepping their boundaries, these senators have also created a scenario where they will be blamed for any failed negotiations. If the Obama administration finds that it can’t make a deal with the Iranians, then all it needs to do is point a finger at these 47 senators. They will become a convenient scapegoat.

Unfortunately, this is more than a matter of political scapegoats. The only harm in that case is to the political fortunes of the Republican Party. The larger issue of containing Iran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons is under serious jeopardy. At this critical juncture, it risks being a complete failure.

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