In the United States’ current boiling political climate, the word “impeachment” is used as a weapon by both sides: opponents of President Donald J. Trump want him removed from office for alleged serious crimes; Mr. Trump’s supporters see impeachment as proof his enemies are out to destroy him.
Some legal scholars, such as Harvard Law School’s Laurence H. Tribe, argue “the country is faced with a president whose conduct strongly suggests that he poses a danger to our system of government.” President Trump warns impeaching him would be disastrous: “…if I ever got impeached, I think the market would crash. I think everybody would be very poor."
So far, most Americans do not want to go that far. But warning signs are flashing for Mr. Trump. Polls show Americans split on whether to impeach Mr. Trump. An August 31 Washington Post-ABC News poll shows
nearly half – 49% – of Americans from all political parties support impeachment; 46% oppose it.
Another August poll by Axios/SurveyMonkey shows
that a majority of Americans – even if they believe that Mr. Trump and his personal lawyer may have violated campaign finance laws – do not support impeaching the president; 44% do support it. Opinions in this poll largely coincide with how Americans define themselves politically: 79% of Democrats and 49% of Independents say Mr. Trump should be impeached; only 8% of Republicans do.
Yet few Americans, let alone citizens of other countries, know what American-style impeachment is or how it works. Only two presidents have been impeached by the House of Representatives: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Impeachment is a two-step process, however. Neither man was convicted by the Senate and both remained in office. In 1974, during the Watergate scandal, the House drew up Articles of Impeachment against Richard Nixon for obstruction of justice by interfering with the F.B.I’s investigation, but he resigned before the House voted.
Impeachment has been a hot issue from the earliest days of the country. After the colonies won their independence from Great Britain in 1783 there was no office of the Presidency; the colonists wanted no repeat of King George III. The U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1787, created an Executive Branch but the drafters of that document agreed the president could not be above the law. The result was Article II, Section 4: “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
There is no specific definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” As President Gerald Ford, who served in Congress, said: “The only honest answer is that an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
President Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, claims: “You’d only impeach him for political reasons, and the American people would revolt against that.
Impeachment is a political as well as legal process but there is no indication that Americans, as a whole, would revolt if he were impeached. Many legal scholars agree that a president cannot be indicted for a crime while he or she is in office. There have been several investigations into alleged Russian interference and possible cooperation with Moscow by the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, the most notable of which is the one led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr. Trump calls the Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and “illegal” and as long as Republicans control the House of Representatives there is virtually no chance he will be impeached. If Democrats win back the House in this November’s midterm elections, however, they could use Mueller’s report as the basis for launching an impeachment inquiry.
For now, Democratic leaders hoping to attract moderate voters are not calling publicly for Trump’s impeachment. Impeachment requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, which means Democrats would need the support of some Republicans. As things stand now, Republican lawmakers are not likely to run afoul of Trump’s ardent base voters.
But in an August NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll
Mr. Trump’s approval rating among Republican voters stood at 46% with 51% disapproving and a Fox News poll
shows support for Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller increasing among registered voters of all parties: 59% in the August 19-21 survey, compared to 48% in July. Forty percent expect the probe will find President Donald Trump committed criminal or impeachable offenses.
Some Republicans say even if Democrats do take the House of Representatives in November, it could backfire if they go after the president with a vengeance, launching still more investigations and demanding impeachment. President Trump, according to media reports, remains convinced that Republicans will maintain their hold on the House.
But some Trump allies think that could be wishful thinking and worry the president is not preparing for what could be the biggest threat to his presidency – and to himself.