The intricacies of impeaching a president
Leah Scheitel // Copy Editor
Illustration by Rachel Wada
On the afternoon of Nov. 15, six democratic congressmen introduced five articles of impeachment against Donald Trump into the US House of Representatives. The congressmen believe Trump violated the US Constitution on five different incidents, including obstruction of justice for the ring of former FBI director, James Comey.
Whispers of impeachment have followed Trump since he took office in January, as people questioned his competency and credibility in holding, arguably, the most important job in the world – US President.
While these congressmen believe they have reasonable grounds to impeach a president, actually removing one from the White House is more cumbersome than it seems, and it has never before been done in the history of the United States.
Impeachment was written into the constitution as a way to retain oversight on the executive branch of office, as the newly formed US government spread into three distinct branches: executive, legislative and judicial. The intent of the three separate branches was to help ensure that no single branch got too powerful, providing checks and balances over the powers of each. The fear was that if one branch of government outweighed the others, the US would be flirting with becoming a dictatorship. Impeachment is essentially a tool for the legislative branch to ensure the executive branch is competent and held accountable for its actions.
As explained by Dale Montgomery, a history professor at Capilano University, impeachment is a multi-step process that has only been enacted twice before in America’s 241-year history.
“The procedure has been put in place twice, but it has never passed,” he said, referencing Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton as the two presidents who have faced impeachment. “With of course Richard Nixon, they started it but he resigned before it went through.” According to Montgomery, the House of Representatives, otherwise known as Congress, starts the impeachment procedure by initiating a committee to investigate the actions of the president.
“What they are looking for is that either the president has committed a serious crime – so it couldn’t be anything like littering, but a serious crime – or if he has committed what they call high crimes or misdemeanors,” he explained, “So that high crimes and misdemeanors, that is sort of a catch-all term. Often times it can encompass – has he done something that is really diminishing the authority of the president.”
In the case of Nixon, who resigned in disgrace from office in 1974, there was a plethora of hard evidence, including tape recordings, incriminating him of illegal activities, such as ordering hush money and pitting the CIA and FBI against each other.
Andrew Johnson, who took office after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, faced impeachment charges because of his personal relations with his cabinet ministers, which Congress wanted more control over. And most recently, Bill Clinton got into trouble not for his sexual exploits with then-intern Monica Lewinsky, but for lying about it. His crime, according to Congress, was perjuring himself.
After the House of Representatives’ committee investigate the president, they present to Congress, where a majority vote is needed to determine if the charges are impeachable. “On a straight up majority vote, what the House of Representatives does is vote – this incident, was it serious enough, was it against the law, or was it a high crime or misdemeanor. That’s all the House of Representatives does,” said Montgomery, “You need the full house for it though. So you have to make sure everybody is there or they have to send it a proxy vote. It’s a full majority vote but that is all the house does is to say what was this incident, was it serious enough for a high crime or an illegal offense.”
This is the first step in the process, after which the Senate, which is technically the upper chamber of the House of Representatives, gets involved. This, according to Montgomery, is where it gets nuanced. “This is where it gets tricky,” he said, “The sitting house committee will go to the Senate and it will present all of the evidence to the senators. What the Senate is only meant to do constitutionally is just to decide then is whether or not the president is guilty of having done that offence, whatever it may have been. But what has happened, what happened with Johnson, what happened with Clinton, was that the Senate on their own decided was it a true high crime or illegal act.”
The Senate is not supposed to decide if it was a high crime or misdemeanor – that was technically already done by Congress. The Senate is just supposed to determine if the president is guilty of the charges. They’ve just kind of got it into their idea that they see themselves as sort of a last bastion on this and they want their say in whether or not this is a serious offence,” Montgomery added.
Instead of the simple majority required in Congress, the charges must get two- thirds of the Senators to agree to impeach for it to be successful, which currently equates to 67 Senators voting in favour of impeachment. Bill Clinton didn’t face much scrutiny in the Senate, with five Republican senators, along with all of the Democratic senators, voting against impeachment and for Clinton to remain in office for his perjury charge. For his charge of obstruction of justice, 10 Republican Senators voted against it in addition to the again unanimous vote of the Democratic, keeping Clinton securely in office.
Andrew Johnson was closer to impeachment – he faced three articles of impeachment, and remained in office by a single vote on each count. What made Johnson’s impeachment case most interesting is that, technically, Congress was acting unconstitutionally by trying to impeach him. The squabble was over Johnson’s cabinet, many of whom were incumbents from Lincoln’s infamous Team of Rivals.
Congress, particularly the Radical Republicans who wanted to abolish slavery, sought control over the president’s cabinet, preventing Johnson from ring cabinet members who disagreed with him or went against his agenda. “They were going against the constitution by trying to take his power,” said Montgomery, “And part of the reason the Radical Republicans were doing it was because they wanted to give more rights to the freed black people, the freed slaves.” “In a moral sense I can absolutely see what the Radical Republicans were doing. But constitutionally it was immoral,” Montgomery concluded.
Trump & impeachment
Since taking office in January, Trump’s presidency has been plagued by rumours of collusion with Russia. A task force led by FBI director, Robert Mueller, has been digging into whether or not Trump’s campaign used Russian powers to influence the outcome of the election, a charge that would equate to treason and likely impeachment. According to Montgomery, this would be hard for Trump to spin if proven guilty. “I think that the Russian collusion is probably their best bet to try and nd this [cause for impeachment],” he said. “Right now they don’t have that smoking gun to show that Trump was colluding with the Russians. That doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It just means they haven’t got it yet.”
Paul Quirk, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia and a commentator on the Trump presidency, agreed that colluding with Russia could endanger Trump’s presidency, but with one caveat – if the Democrats regain control of Congress.
“He could be impeached, [as in] articles of impeachment approved by the House of Representatives, if the Special Counsel finds extremely clear evidence of Trump’s involvement in collaborating with Russia to interfere in the elections, or just based on existing evidence – the ring of FBI director James Comey in an effort to block the investigation – if the Democrats take control of the House in 2018,” said Quirk. “To actually remove him would then require a trial in the Senate and a two-thirds vote to remove him. That would only happen if nearly everyone stopped defending him.”
Currently, Republicans have a majority in both the House and the Senate, meaning it is unlikely articles of impeachment would even pass through Congress if politicians voted along party lines. However, the next Congressional election is slated for Nov. 6, 2018, and if Democrats can regain control of the House, it would be a greater threat to Trump’s presidency. As it stands, Republicans are not eager to remove him from office because, according to Montgomery, they don’t want to see the demise of a president representing their own party. “I just can’t imagine, as much as many Republicans don’t like Donald Trump and they’re not happy, I just don’t think they want to see a Republican president to be impeached,” he said.
Trump & competency
Another question often raised about Trump is whether or not he is competent enough to do the job. He himself admitted the presidency is more difficult than he believed it would be. In April, NBC News reported that Trump told former House Speaker Newt Gingrich that “this is a really bigger job than I thought.” Many of his tactics, including his Twitter tirades, his lack of understanding policies and his high rate of staff changeover, raise the question of whether he is capable of the job he currently has.
Quirk wrote about this at length for a chapter titled “Donald Trump and the Question of Fitness” for the textbook The Elections of 2016. In the book, Quirk references Fred Greenstein who cites six attributes often found in people who run for president. The Presidential Difference, as Greenstein explains, are people who demonstrate certain qualities: strong public communication, organizational capacity, political skill and experience, vision, cognitive style and emotional intelligence. When asked, Quirk said he doesn’t see any of these attributes in Donald Trump. “I doubt that he has any of them. His outstanding deficiencies, however, relate to ‘cognitive style’ and ‘emotional intelligence,” said Quirk, “He has remarkably little knowledge about government, and makes little effort to learn.”
The 25th amendment in the US Constitution states that the president can be removed and replaced by the vice president if the president is proven to be incapable of performing their duties. This has always been interpreted as incapable in the physical sense, such as suffering from a stroke or other health issues. But with Trump, people are wondering if it can be interpreted in the mental sense.
“The 25th says that if the president dies, resigns or is removed from office – so that would be impeachment – or is otherwise unable to discharge the powers of the presidency,” explained Montgomery, “If you want to make an argument that he is mentally unable to discharge the powers of the presidency, you would have something that is pretty strong. You can say a lot of things – he is irrational and doesn’t really have the dignity of the presidency at all – but to that point where it actually represents mental incapacity, I don’t think I could really say it had gone that far yet.”
Quirk said that while Trump is in office, he is forced to act in a more moral manner than before. “In some ways the visibility of the presidency protects the public from some of Trump’s moral deficiencies,” he said, “For example, he is not going to grab any women by their genitals in the oval office or at a state dinner. On the other hand, Trump has been blatantly using the presidency to promote his businesses, and permitting foreign governments to make payments to him.”
One aspect of Trump’s presidency that demonstrates incompetence, according to Montgomery, is the revolving door of aides and senior officials in the White House. Since taking office in January, Trump has replaced his Chief of Staff, multiple cabinet positions and his Director of Communications, twice. Even his polarizing chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was red in August. “I think it does show a level of incompetency but there is no legal way to get him out of office because of it,” said Montgomery.
While many Americans are hoping for a “peachy” end to Trump’s reign in office, it may not come that easily. And many think the half-dozen congressmen who introduced the articles of impeachment are hoping on a wing and a prayer for it to come to fruition. As it stands, it would take finding that elusive “smoking gun” tying Trump directly to Russian efforts to manipulate the election, or a blue wave to sweep Congress next November. Until then, Trump is their president, representing them, however questionably, on the international stage.