As the scandals around the Trump White House deepen, the White House’s lawyers are beginning to research impeachment, according to a report from CNN’s Evan Perez.The White House considers impeachment a “distant possibility,” according to Perez, and for now, it looks like they’re right. While a few members of Congress — including two House Republicans — have raised the issue, so far, Republican leaders in the House and Senate are still standing behind Trump. So far, we are not even remotely close to this politically charged process getting started for Trump, let alone actually happening.And it’s quite difficult to impeach, convict, and remove a president from office — so much so that’s it’s never happened in US history. (Two presidents have been impeached but acquitted; another resigned to avoid near-certain impeachment.)
If you’re interested in understanding how impeachment works —
What is impeachment?
The term “impeachment” itself dates back centuries in England, where it was “a device for prosecuting great lords and high officials who were beyond the reach of the law courts,” as David Stewart writes in Impeached, a book about President Andrew Johnson’s trial.But in the US context, the framers of the Constitution set up the impeachment process to be a way Congress can remove the president from power.
First, the House of Representatives has the power to impeach the president. A simple majority is necessary for an article of impeachment to be approved (each article lays out a charge against the president).Then the process moves to the Senate, where a trial will be held, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding.Finally, and crucially, it takes a two-thirds vote from the Senate to actually convict a president on any count. Conviction on any count would then remove the president from office and put the vice president in power.
Note that two-thirds of the Senate — 67 votes — is a very high threshold that’s almost never achieved on any matter that’s remotely partisan. The framers did not make it easy for Congress to remove a democratically elected president from power.
What can the president actually be impeached for?
The Constitution specifies two specific crimes — treason and bribery — that could merit impeachment and removal from office. In addition to that, it mentions a vaguer, broader category of “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”That’s all we get, and what, exactly, that last category entails has been the subject of a great deal of debate through US history. When Gerald Ford was House minority leader, he said, "An impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history” — though he said this when he was trying to impeach a Supreme Court justice, not a president.Now, as a practical matter, Ford is absolutely right. If a majority of the House of Representatives wants to vote to impeach the president, it doesn't seem that anyone can stop it from doing so — the Constitution says it has "the sole Power of Impeachment." Unlike ordinary trials, evidentiary standards and even the charges themselves don’t necessary have to be grounded in law — it’s all up to Congress to decide what matters.Still, impeachment efforts that are wholly grounded in politics without even a thin pretext of an actual crime haven’t gotten very far, historically. In practice, some allegation of criminal behavior from the president has been necessary for the impeachment process to get moving — even if the true motivation for most of the primary actors really is political.
What does this mean for Trump?
Crucially, Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton — the presidents who were either impeached or who, in Nixon’s case, resigned to preempt a coming impeachment — all faced Congresses controlled by their political enemies, and who therefore wanted them out of power.Trump, of course, does not. And so long as Republicans control Congress, it’s difficult to imagine any impeachment of Trump. The president is still quite popular among GOP voters, and party interests still need him to appoint conservative judges and sign conservative bills. So Republicans in Congress have a strong incentive to give him the benefit of the doubt on any scandal or controversy in which he has some sort of plausible deniability (and perhaps even some in which he may not).
Furthermore, though many Republican elites would probably privately prefer having Mike Pence as president, Trump retains significant support among GOP voters and the party’s base. So actually ousting him would mean tearing the party apart. That’s likely why, to this point, most of the congressional GOP has seemed happy to look the other way on Trump’s scandals or ethical problems.And even changes in the political situation — say, Trump losing some of his base, or the Democrats retaking the House — wouldn’t be enough to surmount that challenging two-thirds barrier in the Senate.The only thing that can really shake up this calculus is new information. If extremely damning evidence of some very serious presidential crime emerges, and proves sufficient to turn a significant chunk of the president’s party against him, that is when impeachment and conviction becomes a real possibility. But if the topic remains partisan, nothing will come of it.