Impeachment: What is it, and Will it Happen?

Professor of Political Science Chris Koski walks through the likely outcomes of the Democrats’ impeachment process

The Democratically-controlled House is now starting the impeachment process to oust President Trump from office. What they’re finding, and all of us are finding through them, is that the process is a lot more complicated than anyone had anticipated, even compared to previous impeachment processes. In order to clear up some confusion about this process and how it is being handled differently from the other impeachments before it, the Quest sat down with Associate Professor of Political Science and Environmental Studies Chris Koski. He explained what it means to impeach a president, the steps involved, and why this case is unlike the ones before it.

What does it mean to impeach the president? There are only two ways to remove the president from office. One is through the 25th Amendment, where if the president is unfit to serve, the vice president can be instilled temporarily or permanently. This route is worded so either the President can initiate it or a majority of the Cabinet. Because of this, it is unlikely to happen unless something has happened that makes the president incapable of performing their duties. The other way to force a president out of office is impeachment. Impeachment is both incredibly simple and very complicated. Essentially, a president is impeached if the House of Representatives votes to impeach them and then drafts articles of impeachment (the charges that are being placed on the President). After that, the president is considered impeached and the case then goes to the Senate. If there is a two-thirds majority in favor of removing the president, then the president is officially out of office. However, in practice, the process is a lot more complicated. 

Many of these complications stem from the fact that the impeachment process doesn’t have a lot of rules and regulations associated with it. As Koski explained, “it’s unclear what really is an impeachable offense. The Constitution is very vague about that. There are some specificities, high crimes, misdemeanors, or treason, that sort of thing, but this is a wide range of activities. Ultimately, what is an impeachable offense is entirely a function of whatever Congress thinks is an impeachable offense.” And this is where complications start to set in. Those leading the impeachment inquiry need to not only gather evidence that proves the president’s misdeeds, they also need to convince a majority of the Congress that the actions from the evidence they gathered are worthy of impeachment. Then, they must convince two-thirds of the Senate that the actions are worth convicting over, which is significantly harder than just impeaching the president — largely because it requires bipartisan support. In this current impeachment process, Congress is still on step one — gathering evidence for an impeachment inquiry — which brings me to possibly the largest complication of all: politics.

You’d think evidence for this impeachment would not be hard to come by. After all, the reason impeachment inquiries were started was mainly because of information exposed in the whistleblower’s article and White House phone transcripts, both of which are publically available. However, most Republican members of Congress have expressed that this information is not enough proof of wrongdoing, and the White House is refusing to submit to the impeachment process. And Congress is quickly learning that it can’t force them to. According to Koski, “people have been finding sort of the dark corners of the Constitution, on the left, to try to get rid of the president and the president has been showing them that the Constitution is actually kind of a basic whitewash route, there’s not actually a lot in it.” In terms of the impeachment process, this means that technically Congress has no authority to use the FBI or any other law enforcement agencies underneath the Executive Branch to gather evidence on the president. This has not previously been an issue, as governmental norms dictated that Congress had this authority, and a president had never argued otherwise. However, with President Trump’s refusal to cooperate, and Attorney General William Barr being loyal to Trump and not Congress, getting more evidence for an impeachment case has become incredibly difficult. More than that, since the Trump White House has a high turnover rate, and so many of the staff were explicitly chosen by Trump and are loyal to him, it is less likely that any of his staff will give up evidence for the investigation out of their own sense of patriotism. And even if the evidence was fully gathered and the House of Representatives did impeach the president, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has stated that the Senate must act on it immediately, which — given the current political climate and the current cohort of Senators — all but assures that a vote to convict and remove President Trump would fail. So, if it is so hard to get an impeachment, what are the Democrats supposed to do?

The Democratic members of Congress started the inquiry early enough to give Republicans the chance to choose another candidate for the upcoming election, and not put everything on Trump. However, this is complicated by the fact that the Republican Party is not holding primaries for this upcoming election. The Democrats must build a strong case that Trump, as a whole, is unfit to be president instead of focusing on any singular action. Ultimately, according to Koski, the Democrats need to fail to convict Trump, and they need to do it publicly. “You need to make the president as toxic as possible and force the Republicans to vote on a series of articles of impeachment that are obviously malfeasances of some variety, even if not crimes, even if not, you know, maybe totally creepy, but still pretty creepy. Force them to take multiple votes on multiple issues and stand beside the president on multiple issues. That way, if [Democrats] lose, they still tarnish the [Republican] party in the process.” When the Quest asked him if he thought it would be difficult to make the Republicans do this, he said, “I think that part’s actually not hard.” So, perhaps even a failure to impeach Trump could be a win for Democrats.

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