What Would It Take to Impeach Donald Trump?

In the wake of special investigations and accusations of illegal activities, what would it actually take to impeach Donald Trump?

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway

Like many left-leaning people, I experienced some pretty extreme emotions when Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States on November 8, 2016. I still remember where I was that night, and the moment I first realized that the election wasn't turning out how I expected or hoped. In the year and a half since his inauguration, President Donald Trump appears to have made more enemies than friends as the corruption and malicious intentions behind his policies have come to light. 

While new waves of voters and politicians—even some who initially supported Trump—have spoken out against Trump's policies, the president still has a core base of support among the far right. Furthermore, Trump continues to receive little to no resistance from the Republicans in congress, who control both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Trump's opposers frequently call into question the president's questionable executive decisions, which include firing FBI Director James Comey and repeated attempts to hinder Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of potential Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. With potentially devastating charges on the horizon for several members of Trump's campaign team, several politicians and constituents have begun asking what it'll take to impeach Donald Trump.

How does impeachment actually work?

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The impeachment process is laid out in the Constitution as written by the founding fathers of the country. Like many statutes in the document, it contains some vague language that has left its meaning up to interpretation over the years. Specifically, the Constitution says that, "The president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States" can be impeached and potentially removed from office if convicted of "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

The process itself is twofold: The House of Representatives is the only body with the power to impeach a federal official. However, the impeachment itself is just part of the process. If the House votes to impeach an individual (via a simple majority vote), they must bring the individual to the Senate, where a trial is held. This second stage of the process is where the Senate may decide (by a two-third majority vote) to remove the official from office. Just because an official is impeached doesn't mean they'll be found guilty, and just because an official is found guilty doesn't mean they'll necessarily be removed from office.

The Constitution's articles of impeachment contain a couple important notes. For one, the president isn't the only person who can be impeached. The vice president and other "civil officers" are also subject to impeachment. At the federal level, impeachment proceedings have only been carried out nineteen times in the history of the country. Eleven of those impeachments led to convictions, eight of those convictions led to the official being formally dismissed from office, and only three officials were further disqualified from holding future public office. It's worth noting that only two presidents have been faced with formal impeachment proceedings. Federal and district judges were the focus of most of these impeachment proceedings.

What's the historic precedent?

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As I've said, impeachment is a very uncommon process in the history of the country. There is, however, some historical precedent to a president being impeached. I'll focus on the two most recent examples, and how they relate to the potential impeachment of Donald Trump.

The most recent instance of a president facing full impeachment proceedings was Bill Clinton in 1998, who was facing a scandal after accusations of sexual harassment. During this time, the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal also came to light, adding to the list of infamous Bill Clinton scandals already in circulation at the time. During trials related to these incidents, Clinton made several attempts to hide his infidelity, ultimately leading to impeachment proceedings on the grounds that Clinton committed perjury and obstruction of justice. Four articles of impeachment were brought against Clinton, two of which passed and were moved onto the Senate, who ultimately voted to acquit the president on both charges.

The only other president to come close to impeachment in the 20th century was Richard M. Nixon, who was accused of a series of crimes, including obstruction of justice, in relation to the Watergate Scandal. The House of Representatives had launched a formal investigation in preparation for impeachment proceedings, but Nixon resigned before they could be fulfilled. It is widely believed that Nixon would have been impeached and removed from office had he not resigned, as there was recorded evidence of his crimes.

These two previous cases teach us a few things about what it would take to impeach Donald Trump. One important fact that often goes overlooked by passionate advocates against Trump is that you cannot impeach an official for lack of character. Clinton wasn't impeached for having an extramarital affair or even for sexual harassment: He was impeached for lying to investigators and to the court. Similarly, we can't impeach Donald Trump for being a racist or a sexist, or for making weirdly incestual remarks about his daughter Ivanka. I'm not saying I believe Trump is innocent or that he shouldn't be impeached, but it's important to understand that serious crimes will have to come to light with unquestionable evidence if there's even a chance of impeaching Trump.

One additional note about the impeachment proceedings against Clinton and Nixon that you should consider is the congresses each of these men were facing, begging the question that this Trump fiasco is all Richard Nixon's fault. When the first proceedings against Nixon began in 1974, Democrats had firm control over both the House and the Senate, making it much more likely for them to vote against the Republican president. Control had flipped by the time of Clinton's impeachment, and the Democratic president was facing a House and Senate under Republican control (albeit by a narrow margin). In Clinton's impeachment hearing, partisan voting was especially apparent in the House. On Clinton's first perjury charge, only five Democrats voted in favor of the charge, while only five Republicans voted against it. For right or wrong, party line voting is something that must be expected, especially in today's polarized political community. Republicans have firm control over the House of Representatives and a slight majority in the Senate. Unless control flips in November 2018, there is next to no chance that congress will impeach Donald Trump.

Will Trump be impeached?

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It remains to be seen whether or not Trump will have to face the music and confront the numerous criminal charges set before him. The fact of the matter, however, is that it ultimately doesn't make a difference whether or not Trump is impeached. President or not, Donald J. Trump is just one man. Between the executive office and congress, hundreds of powerful lawmakers hold electable office. In other words, Trump has been able to get away (so far) with his crimes because of people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Even if we somehow managed to remove the President from office, we'd still have to deal with the rest of these bozos. 

Trump is their dream president because he is loud and obnoxious, and he distracts the public from the despicable actions of many of our ill-intentioned congressmen and women. Instead of crossing your fingers for the unlikely impeachment of Donald Trump, act on your dissatisfaction by voting for congressional candidates that oppose his regime. The House of Representatives has 435 seats that go up for reelection every two years. The Senate has six-year terms, but a third of seats go up for reelection every two years. 2018 is an election year, so do your part and vote for the candidates you believe in.

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What Would It Take to Impeach Donald Trump?
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