Wednesday 20 September 2017

Trump being impeached is now a realistic possibility

Congressional Democrats including Adam Schiff, centre, arrive for a press conference about recent revelations about President Donald Trump’s involvement with Russia on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein
Congressional Democrats including Adam Schiff, centre, arrive for a press conference about recent revelations about President Donald Trump’s involvement with Russia on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, yesterday. Photo: Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein

Peter W. Stevenson

As the backlash over Donald Trump's various controversial decisions escalates - the firing of FBI director James Comey and divulging classified secrets to Russian officials, just to name two - his critics are starting to use the "i" word more and more.

California Democrat representative Maxine Waters said last month that she will "fight every day until he is impeached". Connecticut senator Richard Blumenthal said last week that Mr Trump's actions "may well produce impeachment proceedings".

Other Democrats have repeatedly echoed their thoughts. And now it's not just Democrats; Michigan Republican representative Justin Amash was asked by reporters yesterday whether, if reports that Mr Trump asked Mr Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn are true, Mr Trump's actions are grounds for impeachment? Mr Amash paused and responded: "Yes."

Mr Amash's comments weren't a full-throated call for impeachment, but they're significant, coming from a conservative congressman from the Midwest.

But while some Democrats, and Mr Trump's opponents in general, might be clamouring for an impeachment, it isn't as simple as Democrats deciding they don't like him. There are two big reasons for that. First, impeachment is actually a relatively lengthy legal process - and no president has ever actually been removed from office. Second, removal from office requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senate, and Republicans still broadly support him.

Let's be clear: Mr Trump hasn't been accused of any crimes. His opponents say he's unfit for office, but that's a judgment call, not a standard by which presidents can be impeached. Legal analysts say Mr Trump may have obstructed justice if he asked Mr Comey to drop his investigation of Mr Flynn, but caution that proving intent is key in obstruction of justice cases.

In the end, it comes down to members of Congress deciding that Mr Trump did something that meets constitutional requirements for impeachment.

The US constitution states that "the president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours".

But how those high crimes and misdemeanours are defined is largely up to House members themselves.

Actually removing a president from office is a three-step process. First, a majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote in favour of impeachment. That means at least 218 out of 435 members of the House would need to cast ballots to impeach the president. As of today, Republicans hold 238 seats while Democrats hold 193, and four seats are vacant. That means Democrats would need to persuade 25 Republicans to vote to impeach Mr Trump, which doesn't seem likely.

Second, the president would face trial in the Senate. Chief Justice John G Roberts Jr would preside.

Third, the Senate would vote on whether to convict or acquit Mr Trump. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote in favour of conviction for Mr Trump to be removed from office - a pretty high bar, given that it's hard for either party to get even the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster these days.

And history is on Mr Trump's side. Only two presidents have been impeached, and none has ever been removed from office. Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached in 1868. Mr Johnson clashed with Republicans who wanted Southern states to pay a higher price to rejoin the union. They eventually impeached him for attempting to replace his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without congressional permission. Mr Johnson's impeachment went to trial in the Senate, and he escaped being removed from office by a one-vote margin.

Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached, in 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded. He was charged with four counts, two of which he was impeached for: perjury and obstruction of justice. When it came to the Senate trial, all 45 Democrats voted to acquit him of both charges; they were joined by 10 Republicans in acquitting Mr Clinton of the perjury charge, and five in the obstruction of justice charge.

In perhaps the most famous presidential scandal in US history, the president wasn't impeached. When Richard Nixon left office in 1974, he faced almost certain impeachment, and likewise almost certain removal from office. But he chose to resign instead, handing the presidency to Gerald Ford.

Mr Johnson, Mr Nixon and Mr Clinton were all publicly accused of transgressions for which there was publicly revealed evidence. While scandal swirled around all three, and political opponents howled for their removal from office, none was removed by the political process laid out in the Constitution. And as long as Mr Trump retains the backing of Congress, he's unlikely to be removed either. (© Washington Post syndication)

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