Impeachment of a President

Originally published in the Silent Noise in December of 2019.

A certain electricity in the air has overtaken the political climate of the country in the past several weeks. An event of historic proportions is taking place before our very eyes: 

Donald Trump, the forty-fifth president of the United States, is facing impeachment. As of writing, he awaits a formal vote from a House armed with an opposing majority. By the time this article is published, it is virtually inevitable that the president will have been impeached.

This earth-shattering process has sent seismic waves through Washington, driving the highest ranks of the government and the citizens of the greater electorate into a state of division — an über-amplified incarnation of the division we have grown accustomed to in this era of American politics. Democrats, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, look to serve as the swift hand of justice against their perceived corruption of the current administration; Republicans across the aisle, however, regard the impeachment inquiry as nothing but a “witch hunt” and a cheap ploy to hurt Trump in the upcoming election. The president faces two articles of impeachment, one for abuse of power and another for obstruction of Congress. He stands accused of bribing the Ukrainian president with military aid in exchange for an investigation of Joe Biden, one of his foremost political rivals, after the transcript of a White House phone call surfaced. The impeachment process, which has moved at breakneck speed since it began several months ago, has been ripe with controversy. It begs a crucial question which was born of millions of perturbed voices since the first day of this presidency: Is Donald Trump truly worthy of occupying the highest office in the land, or is he corrupt to the core? More recently, are the Democrats’ actions in the impeachment inquiry neglectful of the laws outlined in the Constitution, or an enforcement of those very ideals written by the founders of our nation? To truly understand the gravity of what has just taken place, we must look at the facts, the law, and the precedent.

Impeachment is legally defined as the leveling of charges against a public official by a legislative body. The Constitution delegates the responsibility to Congress when deciding the fate of a government official who has committed ‘high crimes and misdemeanors,’ a phrase which has been interpreted in varying ways throughout history. Impeachment is left to the House of Representatives, which currently holds a Democratic majority, and proceeds to the Senate for a trial if articles are approved. It’s important to consider the fact that impeachment itself is not the removal of a president, but rather a formal condemnation by the legislative branch. The process has been politicized over time to signify the ultimate stain on the legacy of a president, a more symbolic than legal concept as opposed to removal by Senate trial. Impeachment overshadows all historical discussion of a president and serves as a mark of shame and disapproval by the United States government.

As of President Trump’s presumed impeachment, only three presidents in all of American history have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1868 for illegally removing his Secretary of State and Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying under oath following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Contrary to popular belief, Richard Nixon was never impeached, rather the only president to resign facing an unfriendly Congress with articles of impeachment introduced after the Watergate cover-up. No president, however, has been removed by the Senate following impeachment by the House. Thus, impeachment has never served as a legal process with any formal repercussions, but it has been shown to have political consequences. Johnson, following his impeachment, declined to run for a second term. Gerald Ford, subsequent to the introduction of articles against his predecessor Nixon, was unable to shake the image of his former boss and lost to Jimmy Carter in 1972. President Trump will most likely now become the first president to pursue re-election despite being impeached, paving a new example for presidents post-impeachment. However, it has the potential to backfire on the Democrats. The Republican-held House, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, made the unpopular decision of impeaching President Clinton and went on to suffer a loss of several seats and lose the popular vote in the 2000 election to Vice President Al Gore, with Bush clinching the presidency by the skin of his teeth and a favorable Supreme Court vote. This shows that if the public is not behind the Speaker Pelosi and the Democrats, the action could be seen as politically motivated and hurt their chances in defeating the president next year. Both sides must tread lightly if they wish to have a prayer in the upcoming election.

The impeachment inquiry saw a multitude of important events occur within a very brief period of time. Tensions soared after a wave of Democratic outrage stemming from the surfacing of a phone call between Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky, the president-elect of Ukraine. In the transcript of the call, the two men discussed the United States’ military aid to Ukraine, with Trump expressing his concerns that the US “has been very, very good to Ukraine” but that the relationship is not “reciprocal.” At the mention of aid, the conversation was immediately steered by Trump towards Joe Biden’s son and his activity in Ukraine, with Trump asking Zelensky to do him a “favor” and “look into it.” A fiery legal debate was sparked by the transcript over whether the exchange constituted a quid pro quo, a Latin term meaning “this for that,” which would signify an abuse of presidential power for personal interests. Unsurprisingly, Democrats crowded to the side which alleged such corruption, with Republicans choosing to vehemently deny it. After initial reluctance, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat from California, announced a formal impeachment probe into the president’s supposed wrongdoing in September. The succeeding two months saw testimonies from several officials involved in the ordeal, including US diplomat to Ukraine Bill Taylor and ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who both confirmed that the alleged ‘quid pro quo’ occurred. All the while, Republicans condemned the investigation as unfair and partisan, even “Soviet-style” in the words one Rep. Steve Scalise. The White House unequivocally refused to participate in the probe. After testimony wrapped, the House Judiciary Committee, under the chairship of New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, formally introduced two articles of impeachment against the president: one for abuse of power in his alleged quid pro quo with Zelensky, and another for obstruction of Congress through the stonewalling of subpoenas in the investigation. As of this article’s writing, the House now awaits a vote where the Democratic majority is expected to officially adopt the articles, thus formally indicting the president as a criminal and placing him at the mercy of the Senate. That’s inevitable, but what happens next?

The Constitution outlines the process of impeachment and removal as follows: The House, with 435 seats, can adopt articles and ‘impeach’ the president with a simple majority (i.e. 51% or 218 votes) but the Senate, with one hundred seats, requires a “supermajority,” or two-thirds (67 votes) to actually remove a president. As of now, the Senate currently holds a Republican majority with fifty-three seats. Thus, in order to remove President Trump, the Democrats would need to muster up twenty votes from across the aisle. Obviously, given the divisive nature of the ordeal in itself, Trump’s removal is very unlikely. It would take a truly consequential phenomenon within the GOP to create a fleeting chance of removing the president, because in the moment Republican senators are standing shoulder-to-shoulder by Trump. Even if removal is out of the question, there is no doubt that impeachment will be a hot topic in Trump’s re-election effort next year. On one hand, as Democrats hope, it could deal a blow to his already teetering popularity among voters. An ‘impeached’ status could marry an aura of corruption to Donald Trump’s name, hurting his chances of emerging victorious over the eventual Democratic nominee for a second term. Donald Trump could be another Gerald Ford, minus the degree of separation with Nixon. In another scenario, Trump could be Al Gore in a world where the Supreme Court had gone his way. The Democrats might suffer from an image of unilateralism, or perhaps the public could perceive the process as too fast-moving or not representative of electorate attitudes. Right now, most polls display the American public as split about half and half on the issue. The question of how impeachment will affect the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s administration, and the historical legacy of this presidency is to be determined. In this era of unpredictability, we’ll just have to wait and see. 

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