To Impeach or Not to Impeach

Alan Zendell, April 6, 2017

Impeachment is not a subject to be taken lightly. It has raised its ugly head twice in my lifetime, once against Richard Nixon and once against Bill Clinton.

In the case of Nixon, the Watergate burglary and the subsequent attempt to cover up his involvement, very likely including perjury, (we can’t presume that without a trial,) caused him to lose the confidence of both political parties. The relentless beating from the press and his political enemies rendered him dysfunctional, and ultimately, the impending specter of impeachment caused Nixon to resign the presidency. In the wake of the tragedy of Viet Nam, we were fortunate to have a man of Gerald Ford’s stature and calm demeanor take up the reins of government.

In Clinton’s case the crime that led to impeachment was far less serious – a sexual indiscretion with a young woman of legal age compounded by very questionable judgment. Here too, attempts to cover it up and the possibility that the president had committed perjury raised the ante. The impeachment of Bill Clinton did not produce enough evidence of wrongdoing to remove him from office, but it undermined his effectiveness during the last three years of his administration. The once dynamic, charismatic leader was reduced to a shell of his former self.  Many senior intelligence people believe Clinton’s lack of attention to the threat of Osama Bin Laden was an aftereffect of his impeachment which set us on the path to nine-eleven.

This suggests that before discussing the potential impeachment of President Trump, we should take a few deep breaths. Remember the Law of Unintended Consequences, which bows to no master but serendipity. If Trump were forced from office, would the country be better off with President Pence? Would the resulting chaos, likely lasting several months, have serious international implications, both in terms of emboldening adversaries and disheartening allies? Would impeachment heal the already deep divides within our country?

If we still want to proceed, we need to understand what conditions could result in an impeachment of President Trump. We can’t unseat a president just because his popularity plummets, no matter how many people demonstrate in the streets. The Constitution provides that a president may be impeached only for suspicion of committing “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors”, which include perjury, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, conduct unbecoming, and refusal to obey a lawful order. Sounds like a pretty broad net.

The first step, which is analogous to a grand jury indictment, requires a majority vote of the House of Representatives. If the House really wants to impeach someone, all they have to do is find enough evidence to indict for anything in that list. If they do, there will be a trial in the Senate presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court with Senators acting as jurors.

Impeachment is a political process, not a criminal proceeding. Any of the three bodies currently investigating whether the Trump campaign or Trump himself was guilty of aiding Russia’s attempt to subvert our election process, could gather the evidence needed to impeach. Some of Trump’s accusers suggest that there might even be evidence of treason, which leads to an interesting contrast. Nixon’s enemies viewed the Watergate break-in as a deliberate attempt to subvert the 1972 presidential election, and the word “treason” was heard then too. The main difference was that there was no indication that a foreign power was involved. That element stokes our emotions, but it’s merely a red herring in terms of whether the things Trump is accused of are impeachable. The situations are quite comparable.

FBI Director Comey says he will pursue his investigation “wherever it leads”. I believe Comey is a responsible officer of the law, whether or not we approve of his past actions. If his investigation concludes that there is sufficient evidence to indict Trump for actions he committed prior to the election, the proper procedure will be for him to follow the chain of command and report his finding to his boss, Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General.

I don’t claim to know what goes on in Mr. Sessions’ mind, but I imagine he’d have a few moments of serious reflection. Would his loyalty to Trump trump his duty as Attorney General? (I apologize for that; I just couldn’t resist.) Perhaps the more important consideration for Sessions would be whether he could withhold Comey’s findings and prevent them from being leaked to the press. It’s likely that the equation will become whether his loyalty to Trump is worth the future of his own career, and it’s not difficult to predict what that decision will be.

The point is that if Trump did in fact collude with the Russians to influence the election, impeachment is a real possibility. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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