In 1998, a Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached then-President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, on two charges: perjury and obstruction of justice. Under American law, the House files accusations, which the Senate is then compelled to evaluate; a two-thirds majority of votes is required to oust a sitting president. During the Senate’s trial, not a single member of Clinton’s own party voted to remove him from office. Thus, the second president to ever be impeached was acquitted of all charges.
Fast forward to 2017. President Donald Trump has held office for almost a year, and, much like Clinton, he faces his own independent investigation — this time for his campaign’s potential collusion with a foreign power to throw the election.
One difference between the two is the nature of the accusations against them. While Clinton faced probes of his sexual and personal impropriety, as well as his related aversion to truth-telling, Trump’s team confronts a large-scale investigation into election meddling that, according to several agencies in the United States intelligence apparatus, did indeed occur. The only question is whether the Republican nominee’s campaign aided Russian state actors who, through social media and hacking of the Democratic National Committee email servers, managed to assail one major political party to purposefully boost the other.
Another difference is the relative popularity of the two beleaguered presidents. According to a polling aggregator run by data-journalism website FiveThirtyEight, Clinton held a lofty approval rating well above 50 percent when the House passed impeachment charges against him. As of Tuesday afternoon, Trump’s approval stands at a paltry 38 percent.
The most consequential difference between these two cases, however, has nothing to do with the chief executives, themselves. While Clinton had to contend with a Congress controlled by his political enemies, Trump’s party currently commands every branch of the federal government.
If only Trump were a Democrat, he’d have already been impeached.
But alas, it isn’t so.
As it stands, special counsel Robert Mueller, who is currently heading the investigation into the Trump-Russia scandal, would need to offer incontrovertible proof of criminal action that took place during or following the campaign, and of which Trump himself was aware, for House Republicans to even consider supporting impeachment proceedings.
Should Democrats regain the chamber following the 2018 midterm elections, however, the calculus changes. Under such a scenario, charges could indeed pass. The alleged wrongdoing might even echo one of Clinton’s charges: obstruction of justice. This time, the rationale would likely stem from Trump’s firing in May of the FBI director who was then investigating his campaign’s Russian ties. (Trump himself admitted, in an interview with NBC News, how the Russia investigation, specifically, was on his mind when he booted the director.)
Although impeachment becomes much more likely with a Democratic Congress, it must be noted that conviction does not. It is virtually impossible for either party to command the two-thirds of Senate seats needed to topple a president on a party-line vote, alone. A bipartisan consensus would be needed to oust Trump in this manner. In today’s hyperpartisan era, such an outcome is more than unlikely — it’s virtually impossible.
All this is to say that congressional checks and balances remain an unlikely way of permanently derailing the Trump train. The power of the people to evaluate the president’s performance, and vote him out of office if he chooses to run for re-election in 2020, is still the most likely route to riding ourselves of this costly mistake.
Democracy has a tendency to course correct. Only by working from the bottom up can we truly make America great again. ■