You're never going to oust him using the law—unless the politics turnsby Ursula Hackett / February 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
President Donald Trump’s business dealings, unhinged tweets and conflicts of interest, coupled with lurid sexual allegations and whispers of Russian links have led some to dream that impeachment could be just around the corner. The chatter started even before he took office, and by January’s end half a million people had signed the “Impeach Trump Now” petition. It’s all very wishful thinking.
Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution states: “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.” The House of Representatives must vote upon an impeachment resolution and the Judiciary Committee conduct an investigation. If the House then accepts the impeachment charges, the action moves to the Senate, where a trial takes place. To convict an impeached president a full two-thirds of the Senate must find him guilty. The first of these steps (Committee investigation) has taken place three times: in 1868 (President Andrew Johnson), 1974 (Richard Nixon) and 1998 (Bill Clinton). The second (House vote and Senate trial), twice—for Presidents Johnson and Clinton, but not Nixon, who resigned before trial. The third (conviction) has never taken place.
In conscious opposition to the ancient maxim “the king can do no wrong,” the Founding Fathers created a presidency that was not shielded from responsibility for wrongdoing. In early Constitutional drafts only treason and bribery were impeachable. One founder—George Mason—suggested adding “maladministration,” but James Madison objected that this loose formulation would hand a weapon to politically-motivated enemies of the president. They compromised with “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But Madison’s fears proved well founded: impeachment has never truly been a legal process, and always a political one. The political battleground? Defining “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Unlike well-defined treason or bribery, the “high Crimes” test is entirely elastic. The President’s supporters take a restrictive view, his opponents an expansive one. Presidents may wish things were clearer, and sometimes claim that they are. “You don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer to know that the constitution is very precise in defining what is an impeachable offence,” whimpered a besieged Nixon in 1974. But he was wrong: the Founders did not specify a list of specific offences, nor even require any actual criminal offence be proved. His…