By Fred Benson
A recent Monmouth University poll concluded that more Americans support impeaching Trump than supported Nixon’s impeachment when the Watergate scandal first erupted in 1973.
Forty-one percent of the public now believes Trump should be impeached, while 53 percent do not. When the damaging content of Nixon’s oval office tapes was revealed in July 1973, only 26 percent of the country believed he should be removed from office. This result parallels major polls showing Trump averaging 36 percent approval ratings, his all-time low, similar to Nixon’s 39 percent rating a few months into his presidential crisis.
A quick review of the impeachment process courtesy of USA Today: “First, articles of impeachment are drafted by the House Judiciary Committee. The full House has ‘the sole power of impeachment.’
Each article of impeachment requires a simple majority vote. The Senate then has ‘the sole power to try all impeachments.’ A two-thirds vote is required to convict.”
Only two presidents have been impeached by the House. In 1868, Andrew Johnson was impeached for abuse of power, but the Senate acquitted him by just a one-vote margin. In 1998, the House impeached Bill Clinton on two charges – perjury and obstruction of justice. He, too, was acquitted by the Senate.
In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee recommended impeachment for Nixon on three charges – obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of Congress. Convinced by GOP leaders that he would be impeached, Nixon resigned before the full House voted on the matter. Thus, no president has ever been removed from office through the impeachment process.
Articles of impeachment already have been filed against Trump by two Democratic House members, Brad Sherman (Calif.) and Al Green (Texas), alleging that Trump obstructed justice by firing former F.B.I Director James Comey during the ongoing investigation into his campaign’s collusion with Russia. The round-one bell has sounded. The betting community has weighed in with Betfair predicting there is a 50 percent chance that Trump will not serve out his first term and a 20-25 percent probability that he doesn’t finish out 2017 in office.
Although impeachment proceedings employ legal terminology, it is in reality a political process with several key questions at the forefront.
Who controls Congress? With the GOP firmly in control of the House and few Republican senators currently willing to oppose Trump publicly, the odds of a two-thirds Senate vote to convict diminish rapidly. What Republican senator would want to cast the 67th vote to force a president from office for the first time in U.S. history?
Do the president’s actions, decisions and behavior meet the constitutional test for being guilty of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors?” A high bar in any setting.
Are those supporting impeachment comfortable with a President Pence taking office?
Looking forward to the 2018 elections, how would a vote to impeach or convict Trump be rationalized by members from states where he has strong citizen support?
Absent a “smoking gun,” such as Nixon’s self-incriminating oval office tapes, the likelihood of an impeachment at this point seems low. The one charge that could be an overnight game-changer is if Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigatory effort concludes that Trump, by firing Comey, has indeed been guilty of obstruction of justice. That extremely damaging charge was at the core of the House impeachment of Clinton and one of the three charges that the House Judiciary Committee recommended against Nixon.
The other potential game-changer is the 2018 election. Should the Democratic Party win control of Congress, impeachment would be a foregone conclusion. But getting enough Republican support in the Senate to convict Trump would remain a tall order. Only when voters express the same level of angst for Trump that they once demonstrated against Nixon will Trump be ousted. Current polls indicate slow movement in that direction.
High drama ahead.
Fred Benson is a resident of Mount Desert and publishes “Capitol Commentary,” an independent political newsletter.