After some controversial news came out this week, many people have been talking about a possible impeachment of President Trump. Not just in social media, but even some politicians are mentioning the I-word as well. Democratic Congressman Mark Pocan has said that if the President doesn’t solve “direct conflicts in both domestic and foreign policy,” he will have to face constitutional consequences. Three weeks into President Trump’s presidency, many are betting on it.
Regardless of where you stand on this issue, do you know what “impeachment” is? Or is it just a word people throw around without understanding what it entails?
Impeachment is like an indictment. An indictment is “a formal charge or accusation of a serious crime.” The Constitution allows Congress to charge the President or other government officials if they commit serious offenses. Serious offenses are described in the Constitution as “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
The House of Representative is in charge of impeaching or charging the official. After this, the Senate conducts the “trial.” If the Senate convicts the official, he or she will automatically be removed from office. A criminal prosecution could follow but it is not necessary. Prosecutors do not charge the official and the proceeding is not conducted in a court. Thus, an impeachment conviction does not mean going to jail.The Constitution states that if the impeachment is against the President, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has to preside the Senate trial. Otherwise, the Vice President would preside. And no one can be convicted without the approval of two thirds of the members of Senate present.Additionally, the Supreme Court has said that it cannot review impeachment proceedings. The Court has refused to become involved because it deems this a “political question” – due to the fact that the Constitution exclusively grants the power to impeach to the legislature (and not to the courts).
It sounds legal… but it’s mostly a political act. The catchall phrase in the Constitution of “high crimes and misdemeanors” gives a lot of leeway to congressmen to decide. After all, President Clinton’s extramarital affair and after-the-fact lie was considered enough for an impeachment. At least for presidential impeachments, our history suggests it’s mostly a political move.
Because it is a political act, it is hard to imagine that impeachment will happen anytime soon (unless the President suddenly commits a huge crime). After all, both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans and Trump’s approval rating is said to be around 45%. Although this is a low approval rating for an incoming President, these numbers don’t seem low enough to back up or convince Republicans to impeach the President.About a week ago, Nancy Pelosi (the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives) dismissed impeachment speculations, stating that Trump’s actions offered no real basis for his removal. Of course, her statements were made before the news that broke out yesterday, that Trump’s campaign had allegedly maintained contact with Russia during the election period. The question is whether, if that is true, those actions amount to “Treason, high crimes or misdemeanors.”
It is just too early to reasonably expect such a proceeding to take place anytime soon. This could change, of course, if the President commits a clear violation of the laws or if illicit dealings with Russia are unmistakably shown. If, additionally, President Trump loses considerable support of the people, then, perhaps, worried about upcoming 2018 congressional elections, Republicans would start to consider such an extreme measure. But not yet.
A more plausible alternative could be a bipartisan investigation of the President’s allegedly undisclosed dealings with Russia.