Even before Donald Trump was sworn into office, his critics, including conservative ones, were predicting or outright demanding his swift impeachment. Since his inauguration, more opponents have joined the call for his ouster.
This includes several members of Congress. Democrat Maxine Waters of California discussed the possibility of impeachment on three occasions on Monday (Feb. 6). Days before, Texas Democrat Joaquin Castro told the Dallas Morning News that if, as alleged, Trump has ignored a court order over his immigration ban, he should be censured by Congress—”and if he continues to do that then we should move to remove him.”
But consider these mere warning shots, not serious gunfire. Democrats know two big things need to happen before they can even get close to booting Trump out of office:
- Someone in the House of Representatives needs to actually charge him with something.
- They need to convince a load of Republicans to vote to take him down.
At the moment, they have not yet checked off the first item on the list, and have very poor prospects of accomplishing the second.
How impeachment works
To formally start proceedings, a representative has to introduce a resolution to the House either calling for impeachment or authorizing an inquiry into one. A majority of the House (currently controlled by Republicans) then has to vote for it. Right now, even trying that would be a waste of political capital, since Trump is yet to do anything that even moderate-leaning Republicans would likely agree to impeach him for.
If the House did vote for an inquiry, its Judiciary Committee then oversees an investigation. (When president Bill Clinton was impeached over the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998, this lasted nine weeks.) For the committee to condemn Trump, Democrats would have to persuade four of 24 Republican members to cross party lines.
After that, the articles of impeachment go to the full floor. Only two presidential impeachments have ever gotten this far (Clinton shares the dubious honor with Andrew Johnson in 1868; Richard Nixon had articles of impeachment filed against him in 1974, but he resigned before he could be thrown out of office).
Both Clinton and Johnson faced opposition majorities. In contrast, at the moment, 24 representatives from Trump’s own party would have to vote against him. In Clinton’s case, only five Democrats did so.
And that’s just the first step in kicking a president out of office. Were the House to send him down, Trump would then face a courtroom-like trial in the Senate, with House-appointed members, most likely from the House Judiciary Committee, acting as prosecutors. To eject him out of office, two-thirds of the Senate would have to condemn him—that means another 19 Republicans crossing party lines. This is where the cases against Clinton and Johnson fell down; Senate Republicans didn’t manage to even get a majority against Clinton, while Johnson snuck by with one vote short of the 36 needed back then.
Even though relations between Congress and the White House are beginning to see some strain, it’s unlikely we’ll see enough Republican defections against Trump to make impeachment a real possibility any time soon. Given Trump’s popularity in many districts represented by Republican lawmakers and the sheer amount of scandal he withstood on the campaign trail, his critics must know it would take something enormous to bring him down.
An earlier version of this story misstated the vote count in Johnson’s impeachment proceedings.