In recent weeks I have frequently been asked as to whether or not I believe president Trump should be impeached. In most instances, I will reply with something along the lines of “I’m not sure…”. As you might imagine, the subsequent assumption is that my ambivalence is derived from my feelings regarding Trump. This just is not the case, if I believed impeachment would be a total end to the Trump administration, I would be all for it. But the reality is that impeachment pertains more towards perception and optics regarding the 2020 election, not the potential termination of the current administration.
On September 24, 2019, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives endorsed a formal impeachment inquiry into the country’s 45th president, Donald Trump. With this inquiry, Trump becomes the fourth president in U.S. history to face impeachment proceedings. Before him, Andrew Johnson was impeached over his firing of his Secretary of war—violating the Tenure of Office Act. Nixon faced impeachment for his involvement in political espionage, and the subsequent attempt to cover it up. More recently, Clinton was impeached over the accusation of lying under oath regarding a sexual relationship that he had with a White House intern.
In all past instances of impeachment, no sitting president was ever forcibly removed. In the case of Johnson and Clinton, both were successfully impeached by the house, but not convicted by the senate. In Nixon’s impeachment, he had chosen to resign before any vote occurred. To consider Trump’s impeachment through the lense of removal from office would be delving into a new paradigm, one that is not necessarily in agreement with the existing framework of two-party partisan politics.
So why has no president ever been forced out of the West Wing following an impeachment inquiry? Well, for better or worse it is by design.
The Constitution states that the president can be impeached over instances “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”—the Constitution does not outline what constitutes “high crimes and misdemeanors.” When we use the term ‘impeachment’, we often use it in reference to removing someone from an office or a position of power, but in a U.S. context, impeachment merely refers to the filing of formal charges—it is a process, not a binary decision. Am impeachment resolution can be initiated by any member of the house of representatives. This resolution is then referred to a committee of representatives where a simple majority must sanction the resolution. If approved, the resolution moves to a full vote on the House floor. This is the critical vote, here the president can be impeached by merely a simple majority of representatives.
When analyzing the probability of Trump being impeached solely through the lens of partisan politics, it seems feasible. As the Democrats currently hold 54%, a simple majority would prove no obstacle for a now galvanized group of representatives.
The central question is not if Trump could be impeached, rather it is whether or not a successful impeachment could lead to Trump’s removal.
Once a sitting president is impeached, the procedure then moves to the Senate where a trial is held to determine whether or not a crime has been committed by the president. The trial has no predetermined structure and is largely determined by the current leadership of the Senate. Regardless of the trial’s procedure, two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote guilty in order for a conviction to occur. In order to receive that many votes, at least 20 Republicans would have to join all Democrats. Given the current hyper-partisan nature of American politics, for that many Republican representatives to defect, there would have to be some form of major development.
And that’s what Impeachment might entail, an unprecedented and irreversible shift in the ‘Trumpian’ paradigm that has been plaguing the country for years. Trump, as erratic as he is, has his go-to playbook when it comes to crisis management. Admit nothing, counter-attack, obfuscate, ride it out until the short-lived attention of the American media cycle moves on. This style, as abhorrent as it may be, has allowed Trump to somehow navigate a series of controversies that most certainly would have ruined numerous politicians—it’s not too long ago that an off-sounding scream shattered a presidential campaign. (Dean’s Scream)
Despite his past successes, Trump has never had to deal with being in a position of real vulnerability, a position that the Democrats hope to put him in with impeachment.
As much as the Democratic presidential candidates may allude to or explicitly attack Trump during their campaigns, this does little to further their position within the party or amongst the electorate as a whole. Being anti-Trump is no longer a unique lane for a candidate to occupy, if anything, the anti-Trump sentiment is one of the last few unifiers in an increasingly more divergent Democratic Party. Unfortunately, focusing on Trump seems to be the losing move going into a general election as observed by a few candidates. That being said, this assessment only pertains to the rhetoric used regarding Trump, to directly attack Trump in an impeachment has the new potential to excite. By simply being within a context of the direct offense and a feeling of finally holding Trump responsible, Democrats may fundamentally alter the public’s perception of Trump by attacking him in a rare moment of vulnerability.
To make this attack though, would be a huge allocation of political capital on the part of the Democrats. Capital that may be better spent on campaigning for and predominantly focusing on what the Democratic platform has to offer beyond the opposition. And that allocation is the gambit now facing the Democratic Party. As the paradigm currently exists, I find it incredibly implausible that Trump gets expulsed as a direct result of impeachment. As such, the game being played is one regarding a dynamic calculation as to what furthers the 2020 run of Trump’s challenger the most. And the most important thing in a political campaign is the perception that the voters have of the candidate, everything else is secondary.
Ultimately, that is what our analysis of impeachment comes down to, a series of assumptions about how the optics of the situation will develop. And for better or worse, optics is sometimes all that matters in the hellscape that is American electoral politics.