Ever since Donald Trump was elected our nation’s 45th president, there has been discussion and even actual efforts to impeach him from office. Should the Democrats take control of Congress next January, there will be renewed pressure for impeachment. In light of this, I thought it might be valuable to my readers to examine where this process originates, how it is conducted, and what our history tells us.
Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution says “the President, Vice President and all civil officers … shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Notice that there is a step beyond impeachment (conviction).
Article I, Section 3 covers the impeachment process and specifies that the Senate shall try all impeachments. If the subject is the President, then the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will act as the judge for the trial. Furthermore, impeachment requires two-thirds concurrence (67 senators) in order to convict and remove from office.
To summarize, the House of Representatives originates impeachment proceedings where a simple majority (218 votes) is required to move the bill forward to the Senate where the actual trial occurs. You might think of the House as both prosecution and grand jury in this process. Impeachment only covers removal from office and is not a criminal proceeding.
From my understanding of history, this process has occurred three previous times in the case of the president: 1) Andrew Johnson in 1868; 2) Richard Nixon in 1974; and 3) Bill Clinton in 1999.
The case of Andrew Johnson came the closest of actually removing a president from office and is well documented in Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Johnson was an ‘accidental’ president. He was chosen as a border-state Democrat to broaden the ticket for Abraham Lincoln’s second election in 1864. When Lincoln was assassinated just one month into his second term, Johnson was promoted to the presidency.
The Johnson presidency was a disaster from the start. He had no mandate and differed greatly from the slain president. He clashed mightily with the Republican-dominated Congress, principally over the matter of Reconstruction in the vanquished South. This sharp disagreement led to his impeachment. In the Senate trial, just a single vote by a freshman senator from Kansas prevented conviction and removal from office.
Many people believe that Richard Nixon was impeached over the Watergate controversy of 1972-74, but in fact he was not. He was set for an impeachment hearing when he resigned from office in early August 1974, fearing that he had lost sufficient support in the Congress to prevent removal from office. Like Johnson, Nixon had the opposition party in control of Congress. When his own party began to turn against him, Nixon decided that resignation was the best course of action. He remains the only president (of 45) to resign the office.
Bill Clinton was impeached, but not convicted during his second term in office. The charges against him were based on lying to a grand jury during a civil proceeding. Clinton was guilty of this charge, but the majority of the senators quickly dispatched the case as the result of partisan politics. Again, as in the two previous cases, the opposition party attempted to impeach a president from the other party.
Will this happen to Mr. Trump should the Democrats wrestle control of the Congress away from the Republicans this fall? Actually, they already attempted this in December as the minority party, garnering 58 votes for impeachment, 160 shy of the minimum required.
First, they must bring charges consistent with Constitutional requirements. Treason and bribery seem like outliers, but “high crimes and misdemeanors” are a pretty vague standard. While impeachment is a possibility, conviction and removal appear to be a ‘bridge too far.’ It has never happen to any previous president since George Washington raised his right hand in 1789.
The last time this was attempted in 1999, the President ‘beat the rap’ and became more popular than ever as the economy boomed during his final years in office.
Democrats risk taking this thing too far. Mr. Trump is pretty popular with nearly half the country as the economy is growing at a faster rate than at any time during the previous administration and the foreign policy front is rounding into shape nicely. The president is certainly rough around the edges, but he is accomplishing things from his ‘outsider’ perspective that were considered all but impossible.