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.