The impeachment process and its feasibility: Jewell professor weighs in

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In September Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the House will launch an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. 

Hearings in the House have proceeded, with recent testimony by Ambassador Bill Taylor bringing more evidence to light about Trump’s call with the president of Ukraine. 

Furthermore, Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top expert on Ukraine on the National Security Council, has testified that parts of the actual call had been omitted from the transcript released to the public, including Trump mentioning possible recordings of Joe Biden talking about corruption in Ukraine. 

But what is impeachment, and is it even feasible?

“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,” Article II Section 4 of the United States Constitution states.

In the past, 19 federal officials have been impeached: 15 judges, one cabinet secretary, one senator, and two presidents: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton – Nixon resigned before impeachment proceedings were completed.

Article I Section 2 states that only the House of Representatives has the power of impeachment. Only the House can pass a resolution to start an inquiry and impeach the president. If the vote passes by simple majority, the president is impeached and the Senate can proceed to trial. This, however, does not mean the president is convicted or removed from office. 

Past this point the Senate has all the power. Once the resolution is passed by the House the Senate can decide whether or not to continue proceedings and try the president.  In other words, even if the House passes the resolution, if the Senate decides against it a formal trial on impeachment will not commence. The Senate may also acquit the president of charges, which happened in the cases of both Johnson and Clinton.

If the Senate decides to proceed, the Senate members act as a trial court and play the role of judge and jury, although House members have historically acted as prosecutors. The president can be convicted by a two-thirds vote: this means at least 20 Republican senators would have to vote to impeach President Trump, as well as all Democratic senators, to convict and remove him from office. 

But is this possible or likely? And even if it is, would impeaching the president be a good thing? In an interview for the Hilltop Monitor, Dr. Gary Armstrong, professor of Political Science and Associate Dean for the Core Curriculum weighs in. 

But first, Dr. Armstrong has recommended three resources for anyone thinking about impeachment:  two articles from the Atlantic and a podcast in which Attorney Alan Dershowitz and Allan Lichtman, two scholars with opposing views, debate and discuss whether or not Trump should be impeached. 

Given the political nature of the question of impeachment, what is the current likelihood of President Trump being impeached by the Senate?

“I would say the probability of Donald Trump being impeached by the House is very high and probably urgent. It’s really hard at this point to say whether or not he would be convicted by the Senate; that will depend on a bunch of things. The key point is that the fate of the president is in the hands of the Republicans in the Senate. There would need to be 20 Republicans in the Senate who would need to vote to convict the president, and that would only be to fulfill the minimum two-thirds requirement. It would be safer for a lot of people if there were to be 25 Republicans.

“It is hard whether to say if that is possible, likely or probable at this point. I’ve felt that for the last couple of weeks that the pressure behind the Republican dam of support for the president is building very strongly, and that dam may break. It seems to me that it is definitely possible that a majority of Republicans would vote to convict and remove the president, but it is too soon to tell if that is likely or probable.”

Does Ambassador Bill Taylor’s recent testimony change anything?

“Ambassador Taylor’s testimony profoundly changed things. If his testimony is confirmed by a couple of national security council officials, and most importantly, if it is confirmed by former national security advisor John Bolton, then the situation for the president could be very serious.”

Because there are multiple theories upon which impeachment can be brought, what theories do you think we will be seeing during the impeachment probe?

“The Constitution is very clear that the president can be impeached for bribery, treason or other high crimes of misdemeanor. I think it is most likely that the president will be impeached with a focus on the Ukraine scandal, not, for example, on obstruction of justice arising out of the Mueller report and not on accusations of racist conduct, which is, by the way, the charge in the first bill of impeachment that has been filed in the House of Representatives.” 

“If they charge him on the Ukraine scandal, I think the charge will have something to do with abuse of powers, in particular the abuse of the national security authority of the President. The president’s national security powers are awesome. They can include, under emergency circumstances, the seizure of the media, seizure of the public airways, decisions to kill people abroad or at home, and those powers have to be held in public trust or for the public trust.

“There is now a very serious accusation that the president has abused the national security powers of his office for personal and partisan reasons. I think the charge that – if I were a Democrat – I would be most interested in would be something like this: The president stops military aid to a friendly government under attack in wartime to pressure that government for the president’s personal and partisan gain. That is really serious. If the evidence of that is good, my general feeling is in what universe would that not be impeachable?”

Is there any relation to the charges brought against Trump and the kinds of charges leveled against Johnson, Nixon and Clinton during their impeachment?

“Clinton was being impeached and tried because he had lied under oath involving personal misconduct, or misconduct in his personal life. He was being charged with the kind of thing that anyone involved in accusations of rape and sexual harassment will have to answer to. It is not as though he was being charged with simply private matters; it’s much more complicated than that. But it did not rise, most people thought, to the level of corruption of the inherent authority of the president. The Nixon and the Trump cases do rise to arguments about corruption of the constitutional authority of the Office of President. And it always strikes me that those are the more serious.

“The heart of [Nixon’s case] is a cover-up in the 1972 Watergate break-in. As far as I know, there is no evidence that Richard Nixon knew about and ordered, or had authorized, the Watergate break-in. What he did was cover it up in a series of very controversial illegal actions involving the national security community. And that’s why he was going to be impeached, almost certainly was going to be removed, and that is why he resigned his office. There is at least some similarity between the Nixon and the Trump cases because they involve accusations about the national security authority of the president. The thing that is really striking to me is that Richard Nixon resigned. He knew he was going to be impeached and convicted, and a group of Republican Senators led by Barry Goldwater had gone to him and said, ‘You need to resign for the good of the country and the good of the government and the good of the Republican Party.’ And he did.

“But Richard Nixon had an entire lifetime of service in politics, and he knew you could be defeated and come back. I think he knew he would never have a chance to run for public office again when he resigned, but he thought he had a chance to recover his reputation, and he [worked] hard on that for the next 20 years.

“Donald Trump has never served in government, has no significant government experience, has never been defeated and come back in public life, and I think there is a really important question about whether he has a narcissistic personality that is so strong that even if he knew he was going to be defeated and members of his own party said ‘You’ve got to resign,’ that he would refuse to resign.”

Who are President Trump’s biggest supporters in these proceedings? 

“The heart of the matter is going to come down to the Republicans in the Senate. He has some that are strong supporters, but it’s already interesting how many are being very careful and non-committal when asked about whether or not they will support the president. Several of them, for example Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, has already made it very clear that she is a potential juror and she is not going to make comments until she sees all the evidence. 

“There will be a lot of Republican, conservative, pro-Trump, tea party people who will support the president probably, I think, until the bitter end. And one of the key questions is whether or not they can bring enough pressure on Republicans in the Senate to keep them from convicting and removing the president.

“I continue to believe – and I could be wildly naive about this – that a majority of Republicans in the Senate would be willing to convict and remove the president under two conditions: the first that there are good facts, and the second that there are good politics. But a friend of mine who works for a Republican Senator says that we are now so polarized that he does not believe anyone will agree on what good facts are.”  

Conversely, what will be his biggest weaknesses?

“The President’s most important vulnerability is Donald Trump himself. The President regularly misstates facts, incorrectly characterizes facts and outright lies.” 

Recently, it came out that former Chief of Staff John Kelly said that he had warned President Trump that if Kelly were replaced with a “yes man” Trump would likely be impeached. What do you think of this news?

“I think it would be very hard to be an advisor to Donald Trump. I think the evidence now is very clear that he is almost unadvisable. I think it is pretty clear he is not studying carefully how Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton responded to impeachment. If he were to study carefully how Bill Clinton responded to impeachment and to focus with very strong discipline in doing what Bill Clinton did, he might have a chance. But that is not what he is doing.

“I think it is because he thinks he has the best instincts, he knows more than the political professionals, he knows more than his national security advisors and he knows more than his generals. He says this kind of stuff repeatedly. So I think it is really hard to advise the president. If he cannot tell the truth, if he cannot avoid lying in public and under oath, then the president is almost certainly in very deep trouble.”

When discussing whether or not the president should be impeached, Dr. Armstrong answered, 

“I don’t know whether it is wise to impeach the president. Some people argue as if impeaching the president is an obligation, and I don’t see it that way. I think it is an option, but it’s not an obligation. And if a person’s most important objective is getting Donald Trump out of office, it is not clear to me yet that impeaching the president is the wisest course of action. I would argue that this could be a time when there is a pretty significant gap between the ethics of intention and the ethics of consequence, between the ethics of constitutional morality and the ethics of political responsibility.

“I would urge people that if we think there is no reason to believe that the Senate will convict and remove the president, to think very carefully about whether or not they support impeaching the president.

“I believe the highest version of the charge against the president would be to add the word ‘only’; the president of the United States stopped aid to a friendly government under attack in wartime only for the president’s personal and partisan interest. If you have great evidence that this is ‘only’ [personal and partisan interest was the only reason the president did so], then I think the president could be in deep trouble. 

“Right now, I would say we have good but not great evidence for ‘only’. And there are going to be some people who say, ‘look, if it wasn’t only for corrupt purposes, if there could be other reasonable reasons for stopping military aid to Ukraine, then you could start building a reasonable case to defend the president that a lot of Americans would wind up accepting.” 

The impeachment process is still ongoing. The House is slated to vote on formalizing the process on October 31. What happens from there is still to be seen.

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