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Will Trump Be Impeached?

Vanity Fair logo Vanity Fair 11/15/2016 T.A. Frank
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Do a LexisNexis search, and you’ll find that “Trump” and some variant of “impeach” have already appeared in 37 newspaper headlines. (Duplicates are at play, yes, but let’s not get in the way of a striking statistic.) Documentarian Michael Moorehas vowed to look for the first impeachment opportunity and do what he can to help spur it along. Law professor Christopher Lewis Peterson of the University of Utah has written a paper arguing that Donald Trump can technically be impeached immediately, provided that Trump University is judged to be as fraudulent as it looks. Allan Lichtman, the American University professor who predicted Trump’s win, also predicted Trump would be impeached. Clearly, no one’s wasting time on this. So what are we to make of it?

To start with, you’ll get no predictions here, at least for a week or two. After Trump’s disastrous first debate, I concluded Trump was toast and stuck to that assessment. I could ignore that mistake and link only to past articles that make me look prescient, but I haven’t become that Trumpian yet. So I’m taking a break from guessing. A few weeks of respite should allow me to return to the business of forecasting—still incorrectly, of course, but with more energy.

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Also, as everyone surely knows, the impeachment talk for this presidency is rather early. We’re not even done tallying the votes, and the inauguration is more than two months away. At least allow the man a few days in the Oval Office and put off plans for a dethroning until week two.

Until then, though, sure, we can consider the following two questions: 1) What could make impeachment happen? 2) What would it accomplish?

Those who want to oust Trump fast will have a lot of work to do. Only two presidents in history have suffered such disgrace, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, and neither was convicted. (Richard Nixon dodged by resigning.) Johnson’s impeachment, in 1868, took place several years into his term, and Clinton’s didn’t happen until his second term. Since Trump might be exhausted after one round in the White House, especially as the oldest president ever to take office, impeachment, itself, might take longer than his term.

But let’s assume expedited processing is an option. Legally, impeachment, which is like an indictment, requires serious wrongdoing in order to be invoked—“Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” according to the Constitution. Peterson, the University of Utah law professor, argues that fraud and racketeering fit the bill, and both are at play with Trump University. But the decision is mostly political. That means relatively trivial offenses (perjury regarding extramarital relations, as with Clinton) can get blown up, while serious ones (use of torture in detention, as with George W. Bush) can get ignored. The political will to unseat a president must be overwhelming for things to go anywhere, and the fiasco of Clinton’s impeachment trial, which saw Republicans lose seats in Congress, lessened everyone’s appetite for more of the same.

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In fighting impeachment, then, Trump has some advantages and disadvantages. He has Republicans in charge of both the House and Senate, and partisanship tends to shield executives from accountability. George W. Bush got something close to a blank check for his first six years in office, and Barack Obama, albeit guilty of far smaller sins, also enjoyed a Democratic shield against those who probed too closely. Many Republicans would rather play ball with a very flawed president on their side than stir up a war with impeachment.

On the other hand, many elected Republicans, perhaps most, consider Trump to be a threat to their brand and priorities. They worry that Trump is unhinged. (Who, apart from Trump himself, doesn’t?) To see Trump disappear and leave things to Mike Pence, a lockstep party man with all of Trump’s traditional rightist views and none of Trump’s eccentricities or heresies, would be a dream-come-true for Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell. Pence would be happy to sign all the bills that hit his desk and reverse course on foreign policy, trade, and, to some extent, immigration. This is why many Trump supporters, like Ann Coulter, were apoplectic over the choice of Pence: he makes Trump more impeachable.

Still, for now, on balance, the cons of impeaching Trump far outweigh the pros, from the perspective of Republicans. The party would fracture, and much of the base would rebel. Even if Trump University leads to convictions, no president has been impeached for misdeeds committed prior to taking office. For impeachment to occur during a first term, Trump would have to be shown doing something very bad indeed: taking money from Vladimir Putin, say, or launching missiles at Hawaii. What’s more plausible are small but steady violations of liberties and norms, leading to arbitrary detention, encroachments on press freedoms, blatantly politicized federal departments, and straight-up corruption. As we’ve seen over the past 20 years, the party of the president will provide only minimal checks, let alone impeachment, when such problems arise, no matter how terribly they accumulate. We can thank hypocrisy and polarization for that. So, thank you, hypocrisy and polarization.

Would impeachment do anything worthwhile for Trump’s opponents on the left? To the extent that it would distract Republicans from governance and block their agenda, yes. But soon all you would have would be President Pence and a return to the Bush years. Gone would be any suggestions of preserving parts of Obamacare or sparing entitlements, and an interventionist foreign policy (assuming Trump had avoided it) would return with a roar. So the choices on impeachment come down to brands of crazy, Trump-style or Pence-style. Is the craziest president the one with minimal impulse control or the one who still believes Americans are keen on regime change abroad and privatized Social Security? We’d have to be very unlucky to learn the answer.

Overall, the United States has a tricky system, one that’s far less agile in times of loss of confidence in leaders. We can’t call elections suddenly, so we’ve got to ride out any bad presidency for all four miserable years. The facile prescription for Trump haters in the years ahead would be to work to elect an opposition-party majority in the House and Senate in 2018. That would provide at least some checks on the White House. But the math is against such efforts. The more realistic effort is to look at how best to come back in 2020. In the meantime, Democrats can take note of how executive power gets abused and make sure, next time they’re back in charge, to put in place ways to curb it permanently rather than use it for their own side. Because Trumps can always happen.

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