Could Trump be impeached shortly after he takes office?
- It’s highly improbable, but law scholars and political junkies are speculating about it.
Donald Trump isn’t even the Republican nominee yet. But his incendiary rhetoric, most notably about killing the families of terrorists and bringing back torture, has critics on the right and the left discussing the most extreme of countermeasures at an unusually early point in the race.
“Impeachment” is already on the lips of pundits, newspaper editorials, constitutional scholars, and even a few members of Congress. From the right, Washington attorney Bruce Fein puts the odds at 50/50 that a President Trump commits impeachable offenses as president. Liberal Florida Rep. Alan Grayson says Trump’s insistence on building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, if concrete was poured despite Congress’s opposition, could lead down a path toward impeachment. Even the mainstream Republican head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently tossed out the I-word when discussing the civilian backlash if Trump’s trade war with China led to higher prices on everyday items sold at WalMart and Target. On his radio show last month, Rush Limbaugh even put a very brisk timeline on it: “They’ll be talking impeachment on day two, after the first Trump executive order,” he said.
It’s not unusual for controversial presidents to be shadowed by talk of impeachment, once they’ve been in office long enough to make people mad. But before he’s elected? Before he’s a nominee?
Constitutional experts of all political stripes say it’s surprising for impeachment talk to bubble up this early — but then Trump has been throwing around some surprising ideas for a leading candidate, calling the Geneva Conventions a “problem” and pitching policies that many see as violating international law. “What he’s stated in my judgment would be clearly impeachable offenses,” said Fein, a former Reagan-era Justice Department official who worked on the Bill Clinton impeachment effort. Likewise, Yale Law School lecturer and military justice expert Eugene Fidell offered a similar prediction for Trump from the left. “He’s certainly said things, which if followed through on, would constitute high crimes and misdemeanors,” Fidell said. And doubtless many of Trump’s foes would like to see him impeached just on principle — the quickest way to broom out a leader who horrifies the inclusive sensibilities of Democrats, and has blown apart the Republican Party he’s nominally part of.
So could it really happen? And how about Limbaugh’s two-day timeline? Given the attention a Trump impeachment has already received — the New York Daily News tabloid opined that “it’s not too early to start” an “Impeach Trump” campaign — it’s worth asking the questions. We interviewed more than a dozen members of Congress, former Capitol Hill administration and presidential campaign aides and legal experts to cobble together a totally hypothetical situation in which Trump were to become the first American chief executive to ever get the ultimate, “You’re fired!” from lawmakers.
Nobody we talked to said this was likely without a series of cascading events first unfolding. Impeachment is, after all, a rarely used and highly disruptive tactic that would throttle pretty much everything else happening from a federal policy perspective in the country. It would take an unprecedented mix of popular sentiment and raw power politics at the very highest levels to actually succeed at toppling a new president, and it’s far from certain that even Trump could manage to be so offensive that he clears that bar.
That said, travel on the Politico time machine to the summer of 2017: President Trump, survivor of a Republican civil war and Hillary Clinton’s Democratic machine, is making good on his promise to “Make America Great Again.”
He has ordered federal contractors to start building the wall between the United States and Mexico, though neither Mexico nor the U.S. Congress will pay for it. Trump has directed the National Guard to patrol Detroit, Chicago, New York and other neighborhoods with large Muslim populations, and accusations are swirling that he is illegally rounding up suspected Islamic extremists and shipping them off to special detention centers, including the recently reopened Alcatraz Island and to several of the World War II-era internment camps the U.S. government used for Japanese-Americans. Despite the counsel of his foreign policy and military advisers, Trump has commanded the CIA to resume waterboarding and other forms of torture to obtain information about imminent attacks. Inside the intelligence and defense communities, a full-blown internal war has broken out as some interrogators and high-ranking officials follow Trump’s orders, while others refuse to cooperate. Some resign their posts and begin leaking details to the media and Congress. Trump has also ordered airstrikes on the family members of known terrorists from Afghanistan to Libya. CNN airs live coverage of the bombings and protests sweep across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe as the death toll rises for the parents, siblings, spouses and children of ISIL and Al Qaeda fighters. At the United Nations, a resolution is passed, calling for Trump to be tried on war crimes.
On talk radio and cable news, the #NeverTrump movement has morphed into #DumpTrump: Limbaugh thunders from the right that it’s time to hand the keys to Vice President Jeff Sessions, while Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell dedicate their nightly MSNBC broadcasts to tallying lists of alleged high crimes and misdemeanors.
Most importantly, the polls have turned against Trump. He still has his most passionate supporters, but the honeymoon in the Oval Office is clearly over. Enough of the American public had voted to hire Trump — he’d captured the Electoral College in November 2016 without winning either the popular vote or a plurality — hoping he’d make America great again. But now the country is clearly dissatisfied with how he’s going about doing it. And as the bad headlines keep piling up, Trump’s once-vaunted poll numbers are anything but yuuuuge.
This is the critical first step. Though impeachment is officially a legal process, American history suggests that above all, it’s always been a political move. Sinking approval ratings are the prerequisite, telling Trump’s opponents that going after him would be more political opportunity than political risk. “Look at the Gallup polls,” Fein said, recalling that Richard Nixon’s impeachment really got cooking in Congress once the president’s approval ratings had started tanking. “Ninety-nine percent of the game is how popular is the president.”
In Congress, lawmakers amazingly are riding approval ratings higher than President Trump. And so begin the calls for his impeachment, starting with the Democrats. Nancy Pelosi had refused to pull the trigger on impeachment at the end of Bush’s second term (even as Trump the businessman had said it “would have been a wonderful thing” to see the Republican president taken out prematurely). But the California lawmaker, still the House minority leader, is more than willing to take Trump out now and further weaken the GOP party as the jockeying begins for 2020.
Next come the Republicans. Many were never big fans of Trump’s to begin with, like 2016 primary rival Lindsey Graham and John McCain, who Trump had insulted for being captured during the Vietnam War. The Republican senators are first on their side of the aisle in calling for his impeachment, and that opens the anti-Trump floodgates as fellow GOP colleagues who had stayed silent on the new president no longer fret about the damage it could do to their own careers.
Technically, impeachment’s heaviest lifting falls on the House Judiciary Committee and its chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who had stayed neutral in the 2016 GOP primaries. He approves a special subcommittee to do the deep digging and build the legal case against Trump. But it’s House Speaker Paul Ryan and his leadership lieutenants who make the crucial call to even let the impeachment proceedings get off the ground. During the 2016 GOP primaries, Ryan had insisted on playing the role of “Switzerland” to avoid being seen as taking sides in a bitter nomination contest that pitted the party’s establishment forces against Trump. Now that Trump is in power, though, the new president is making a string of controversial and illegal domestic and foreign policy decisions that are staining the GOP, and the country. Impeachment, Ryan concludes, is the ultimate payback for Trump’s humiliation of the party that Ryan grew up lionizing.
Doug Holtz-Eakin, a former McCain 2008 presidential campaign economic adviser and Congressional Budget Office chief, agreed to POLITICO’s request to game out the Trump impeachment scenarios for the Republican leadership. “The kinds of violations that are being suggested are so dramatic and so large that it’s going to be not just putting your finger to the wind and see what the polls look like,” he said. “This is the character of government that everyone took an oath of office to uphold. A situation like that would dominate [GOP leadership’s] thinking. I don’t think they’d hesitate. They’d hate it, but you do what you have to do.”
Former Harry Reid strategist Jim Manley, a fellow time machine participant, said he didn’t think GOP establishment leaders would blink. “This would be a rear guard effort led by Republicans, with the acquiescence of Democrats, to purge a system once and for all of the toxins that have been building for years,” he said.
Simply calling for Trump to be impeached would be a political wound to his presidency — a gut punch that in many ways echoes the kind of tactics he’s deployed on the 2016 campaign trail. But that would still be the easy part. The real hit would come as a majority of the GOP-led House votes in favor of impeaching a president from their own party.
Across the Capitol, attention turns to the Senate, where the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote for the action. That’s a threshold that has never been reached in U.S. presidential history: both of the two previous impeachment trials of chief executives to reach the Senate — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999 — fell short. (Richard Nixon resigned from office in 1974 before the full House had even voted on his impeachment.)
Leave it to Trump, however, to bring the Senate together. Democrats who recaptured their majority in November are unanimously in favor of ending his presidency. And with a sizable number of House Republicans already on record supporting impeachment, it isn’t so difficult to round up the 15 or so Senate Republicans who are likewise willing to make history and convict Trump.
And so, the billionaire-reality-TV-star is out of his new job. He retreats to his namesake tower in Manhattan, leaving Washington to pick up the pieces — and reckon with the angry but loyal minority of Trump loyalists they’ve just disenfranchised.
Will it happen?
Not likely. “To overturn the rule of the American people in the general election you have to have real substantive cause to do it,” said former Connecticut Rep. Chris Shays, who was one of four Republicans who voted against all four of the articles of impeachment against President Clinton. “It can’t just be political. It can’t be arguably gray between the two positions. It’s got to be really definitive.”
And the scenario doesn’t take into account what might happen between now and the election: that the crafty, instinctual candidate could play a variety of wild cards to counter the impeachment campaign before it even happens.
One is a decision he might get to make this summer if he wins the nomination: to pick a vice president so unpalatable, so utterly Trumpian, that Congress would consider the solution more troubling than the problem. No doubt, even the most aggressive Congress would hesitate to remove Trump if it meant elevating Sarah “Mama Grizzly” Palin, or reality TV star Omarosa Manigault, or rocker turned gun rights crusader Ted Nugent. “That would provide him some insurance against impeachment,” Fidell said.
Lawmakers contemplating impeachment will also want to consider the consequences should Trump manage to wriggle through their gantlet — one that might even seem easy for him, after such a bitterly contested GOP primary — to emerge even stronger and a more formidable foe of the Washington establishment.
“The last thing you want to do is strike at the king and not chop the head off,” Fein warned.
Liberals expect that a President Trump wouldn’t hesitate to defend himself against congressional critics by pointing back to President Barack Obama’s own reliance on executive orders and even the Bush-era, post 9/11-war authorization that’s been used to justify drone strikes and other anti-terrorism military operations. “He’ll just constantly be citing President Obama, and a tragedy awaits,” Bruce Ackerman, a Yale law professor warned.
And for a Congress suffering from its own dismal approval ratings, any moves to impeach Trump also would need to take into account the political consequences that would come if lawmakers—Democrats or Republicans—tried to prematurely end an administration led by someone who had still won the general election. Trump is warning of “riots” if the GOP establishment tries to steal the nomination at the Cleveland convention later this summer. Imagine his retort if lawmakers are trying to boot him from the White House. “You’d shut the entire country down while everybody pays attention to that, so it’s a big penalty to pay,” said New Mexico GOP Rep. Steve Pearce.
It might be unrealistic, but Trump can be assured the impeachment chatter isn’t going away any time soon. Earlier this month, conservative columnist and #NeverTrump advocate Jonah Goldberg published an article full of reader suggestions on how to block the billionaire’s path to the White House. One bank-shot idea, from a Democrat, involved John Kasich joining the Trump ticket and then becoming president after Trump’s impeachment. Trump also isn’t the only one facing calls to be fired: Hillary Clinton last fall had to laugh off as “so totally ridiculous” the suggestion by Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks that because of her use of a private email server while serving as Obama’s secretary of state, she’d be “subject to impeachment” on her first day in office.
Craig Stevens, a former George W. Bush spokesman, said the specter of a Trump impeachment fight actually serves both Democrats and “probably some Republicans” well as they try to hit the reset button ahead of the next presidential campaign cycle. “Even if [Trump] becomes the greatest president of the modern era, I think some would use [impeachment] as a rhetorical device going into 2020,” he said.
So, will it happen? Can it? Perhaps the best sign yet as to whether Trump could make it through a four-year term will come in November. Impeachment may be a Washington battle, but this is really something that the American public gets to decide first.
“It’s hugely going to be dependent on if [Trump] wins, what was the margin of victory?” Fein said. “And if the margin of victory is high, I don’t care how high the offense is, it’s not going to be debated on by Congress.”
Source: Darren Samuelsohn, politico.com/magazine/story/2016/04/donald-trump-2016-impeachment-213817/