What it would take to impeach President Trump

President Trump is here to stay.
President Trump is here to stay.
Image: Reuters/Joshua Roberts
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Conflicts of interest. Authoritarian tendencies. Finances obscured from public view. Secret ties to Russian oligarchs. There are those who have speculated that this litany of offenses, exaggerated and actual, by the current president of the United States might be sufficient to force Republican congressional leaders to bring articles of impeachment that result in the president’s removal from office.

That’s not going to happen.

The United States constitution sets up strict requirements for removal of a sitting president for transgressions of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” and a process that requires the consent of both the House and two-thirds of the Senate. The 25th amendment further created a process whereby the president’s own lieutenants could remove him from office if he is “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office,” a process that has never been tested after being ratified in 1968 in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. One president, Richard Nixon, resigned before articles of impeachment could be brought against him. Two other presidents have had articles impeachment brought against them in the House, though they were ultimately acquitted by the Senate.

Donald Trump is not likely to be the third.

Impeachment in the United States is purely a political act. The definition given in the constitution provides no hard and fast standard beyond which Congress must impeach the president. If the party of a politically popular president were to control congress and be implicated in, say, a bribery scandal, this president would not be touchable until Congress determined it was in their interest to do so. The impeachment process is only as good as the will of Congress. Short of impeachment, Congress could censure or otherwise sanction the president, but is under no obligation to remove him from office. With Republicans firmly in command of the House and Senate, impeaching their own sitting president would be a self-immolation of their party.

For this to happen, several conditions would have to be present. There would need to be concrete, incontrovertible, undeniable evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the president. Evidence so strong that it caused Trump’s own base to abandon him, and make the politics of impeachment unquestionable for Republicans. Trump’s staying on in office would have to be a bigger threat to Republican majorities than his removal. Nothing from the Trump administration so far comes close to this standard. Though the press has eagerly run stories from an unverified dossier alleging personal ties between Trump and Russia and gleefully digs into any new allegations of contact between Trump’s team and the Russian government, nothing concrete has emerged tying the president (or, yet, any of his associates) to any criminal behavior that meets the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors. Not even close.

More pointedly, even as Democrats decry the destruction of democratic norms and American institutions, Trump’s approval ratings with Republicans remains quite resilient. 87% of Republicans still support the president in a recent Gallup survey. Republicans could never impeach a president who was so popular within their own party.

The timing would have to be very precise as well—Republicans aren’t likely to impeach their own president before the 2018 midterms, unless such an impeachment improved their own prospects for reelection. This seems unlikely given that impeachment proceedings would provide the ultimate forum for Democrats to undermine the Republican party in the biggest news event of the year. They also wouldn’t want to impeach him too close to the 2020 presidential election, knowing that damaging the party would hand the White House to whomever Democrats decide to nominate. The golden moment for an impeachment would be very early in 2019, after the midterms but far enough from the 2020 general election that vice president Mike Pence could be installed as Trump’s replacement in time to run with the unified support of his party.

Coincidently, such a vote would come exactly 20 years after the impeachment proceedings against president Bill Clinton. Clinton’s impeachment was about neither the consensual affair he committed in the Oval Office nor the perjury charge that was brought against him as he attempted to cover it up. At its heart, the Clinton impeachment was about fulfilling a campaign promise made by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who ran against president Clinton’s loose morals in the 1998 midterm elections. The trial was conducted by a Congress firmly held by the opposition Republican party, and action on the articles of impeachment in both chambers were largely party-line votes.

The media is reporting lots of smoke coming from the Trump administration—unresolved conflicts of interest, overblown allegations of possible links between Trump’s campaign associates and a coordinated foreign campaign to undermine the election, and Trump’s unusually low approval ratings for a new president have caused many to ask if impeachment is possible. But as of yet, there is no fire. Even if flames were to emerge, removing the president from office is the absolute last resort for Republicans and is today unthinkable. If you were to survey Republican members of Congress, you’d probably find that many of them would support running Mike Pence as president in 2020, but more importantly, you’d find that all of them want to support the candidate who can win in the general election. As long as Donald Trump remains that candidate, they will support him.