The US House of Representatives has opened an investigation into whether President Trump has committed acts that would justify his impeachment. Impeachment is written into the American Constitution and was modeled after the British procedure. It is a process that allows the legislative branch to investigate wrongdoing by officials in the executive and judiciary, and, if legislators believe it justified, remove them from office. In the US, impeachment is a two-part procedure. First the House of Representatives, by a majority vote can impeach, but then the official is tried before the Senate and removed from office only if two-thirds of senators vote to do so. Both US presidents who were impeached by the House, Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998, remained in office because less than two-thirds of senators voted to convict. Richard Nixon resigned before he was impeached when he realized that more than two-thirds of senators were prepared to vote against him.
Impeachment, in the US as in Britain, is a political process. The Constitution’s terminology, “for high crimes and misdemeanors” sounds legalistic, but in practice officials are removed for acts that are not explicitly illegal and officials who committed acts that violate law in most cases never are impeached. In essence, impeachment, and conviction in the Senate, can be for any act that enough legislators deem to be deserving of removal from office. The only constraint is fear of voters’ backlash in the next election against members of Congress they see as having acted unreasonably in pushing the impeachment process.
The recent move to advance the impeachment process against Trump stems from a whistleblower’s letter claiming that Trump offered to release military aid to Ukraine, that he had previously suspended, if Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky did Trump the “favor” of investigating former Vice President Biden and Biden’s son Hunter and finding or manufacturing evidence of crimes by the Bidens. Trump then released an edited, and probably distorted, transcript of a phone conversation between him and Zelensky that showed Trump making that offer of weapons for made-up evidence against the Bidens.
The Ukraine case differs from other accusations against Trump that so far have not led to an impeachment investigation. The now two-year effort to tie Trump to Russian interference in the 2016 election got bogged down in a long and inconclusive investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Efforts to impeach Trump for violating the Constitution’s “emoluments clause,” which forbids government officials, including presidents, from accepting favors from foreign governments have not yet advanced. Trump and members of his family have received at various times during his presidency favors that have enriched them or furthered Trump’s political career. Certainly, the deal Trump tried to reach with Zelensky was designed to help Trump’s political career by weakening his most prominent Democratic opponent. Other favors he has received or tried to win include trademarks for his daughter Ivanka in China, and deals to build hotels or residential towers (or to gain licensing payments for putting his name on buildings erected by others). However, most of those deals have not reached fruition and they are of uncertain value. To impeach Trump for the money he made because foreign delegates have stayed in his hotel in Washington strikes most Americans as petty.
In contrast, the Ukraine accusations are much clearer. Trump was offering hundreds of millions of dollars of weapons, paid for by US taxpayers, if Zelensky manufactured false evidence against Biden. While most Americans couldn’t find Ukraine on a map, and have even less interest in the actual geopolitical issues at stake there, they do understand using governmental power for private purposes and asking someone to lie for them to undermine a political opponent.
It is too early to predict with any confidence what will happen to Trump. The biggest unknown is whether there will be any further evidence of criminal acts or non-criminal but impeachable behavior by Trump. Even after the revelations about Ukraine he openly called for China to investigate Biden and stated that if China didn’t it would affect ongoing trade talks. In other words, Trump is offering to exchange trade concessions to China or tariff relief in return for invented dirt on Biden. Such talk suggests that Trump thinks he is invulnerable, that his supporters will stand with him no matter how he behaves. Certainly, his ability to get away with boasting about sexual assault, committing adultery, insulting war veterans and parents of war dead, and self-dealing in office provide good reasons for him to have confidence he never will be removed from office and that instead he will win reelection in 2020.
Support for impeachment has increased very rapidly since the Ukraine revelations, and if Trump is seen to be soliciting more countries to invent stories about Biden in return for foreign aid or trade concessions, opposition to Trump could increase further. However, even if there is a heavy majority in favor of impeachment, and the House votes to impeach, twenty Republican senators still would have to joint all the Democratic senators to reach the two-thirds needed to remove him from office. Republican senators don’t have to care about national opinion, they only need be concerned with voters in their own states, and most Republican senators come from states that are heavily pro-Trump. Their biggest electoral worry, at least for now, is being challenged in a primary by an even more rabidly pro-Trump Republican than losing in the general election to a Democrat. It would take a drastic shift in public opinion for those senators to feel vulnerable to defeat.
Most likely, Trump will remain in office, but the revelations about his corrupt dealings with foreign governments could undercut enough support that he will lose reelection in 2020. Regardless of the outcome, the impeachment process will reveal how tolerant Republicans are of behavior that in the past they would have labeled treason and criminal if committed by a Democrat, and which they did label criminal and worthy of impeachment when Nixon did it forty-five years ago. Now, the Republican Party’s commitment to constitutional norms and the rule of law is as much up for judgment as Trump’s actions.