DONALD Trump’s presidency doesn’t start until January 20, but some of his more stubborn critics are already looking for a way to end it.
They think the answer is to impeach him.
“Just as the Republicans were already planning to do with President Hillary from day one, we must organise the apparatus that will bring charges against Trump when he violates his oath and breaks the law — and then we must remove him from office,” filmmaker Michael Moore wrote today.
A law professor at the University of Utah, Christopher Peterson, claims there’s already enough evidence to justify impeachment proceedings against Mr Trump.
Is he right, or is this talk of impeachment just a ridiculous fantasy for Democrats in denial? Let’s examine the facts.
HOW IS A PRESIDENT IMPEACHED?
Article II of the US Constitution includes this section:
“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 misdemeanours.”
So the president is sackable. If Mr Trump did something outrageous enough to justify his removal from office, there is a constitutional mechanism that could make it happen.
We’re fairly sure Mr Trump hasn’t committed treason or bribery, so that leaves “other high crimes and misdemeanours” as the possible justification for his impeachment. We’ll look at that in more depth in a moment.
Say, hypothetically, Mr Trump has done something appropriately awful. The next step is for the House of Representatives to pass articles of impeachment with a simple majority. At that point, the president has officially been impeached.
Then he faces a trial in the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. At the moment, that’s Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by George W. Bush. At the end of the trial the Senate votes, and a two-thirds majority is required for a conviction.
If he’s convicted, the president is removed from office. In this case, that would result in Mike Pence becoming the new president.
COULD IT HAPPEN TO DONALD TRUMP?
The short answer? Probably not. At least not yet.
It hinges on the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanours”. Professor Peterson argues Mr Trump has already done enough to reach that threshold through his wealth seminar business, Trump University, which charged students thousands of dollars and promised to teach them the secrets of his success.
Several of those students are now suing Mr Trump, claiming the get-rich-quick seminars conned them out of their money. The lawsuits accuse him of fraud and racketeering.
“It is illegal for businesses to use false statements to convince consumers to purchase their services,” Prof Peterson writes.
“The evidence indicates that Trump University used a systemic pattern of fraudulent representations to trick thousands of families into investing in a program that can be argued was a sham.
“Fraud and racketeering are serious crimes that legally rise to the level of impeachable acts.”
OK, so if Mr Trump is found guilty of fraud or racketeering, there could be sufficient grounds for impeachment. But don’t get too excited, Trump haters, because there’s a political element to this as well.
When Mr Trump takes office, the Republican Party will control both the House of Representatives and the Senate. You can assume the Republicans are unlikely to go after a president from their own party, which means the articles of impeachment would probably fail to pass through the House.
An impeachment effort would be far more likely to succeed after the next midterm elections in 2018, where the Democrats could win back control of Congress. It would still be a drastic and politically risky move.
WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE
Two previous presidents have been impeached. The first, Andrew Johnson, was tried for violating the Tenure of Office Act, and acquitted in 1868. It was as boring as it sounds. The second, Bill Clinton, was impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal, and was also acquitted.
Richard Nixon was almost impeached over Watergate, but resigned as president before the necessary resolutions could pass in the House of Representatives.
So, there is precedent here. But ultimately, the probability of a push for impeachment succeeding is dependent on public opinion.
“Ninety-nine per cent of the game is how popular is the president,” Bruce Fein, who was involved in the Clinton impeachment, told Politico in April. If President Trump’s approval rating is high, no one will dare to move against him.
But if a scandal explodes and those poll numbers dive, it will open the door to one of the most dramatic acts in America’s political history.
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