As the backlash for President Donald Trump’s various controversial decisions escalates — firing FBI Director James Comey and giving away classified secrets to Russian officials, just to name two — Democrats are starting to use the “i” word more and more.
“It is a looming constitutional crisis because it involves a potential confrontation as did Watergate between the president and other branches of government,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said last week, after Trump fired Comey. “It may well produce impeachment proceedings.”
“On the issue of impeachment, I am doing my homework,” U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, said at a town hall event in April. “I will just say I understand the calls for impeachment, but what I am being cautious about and what I give you food for thought about is that if President Trump is impeached, the problems don’t go away, because then you have a Vice President Pence who becomes President Pence.”
“We’re actually pretty close to considering impeachment,” U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Kentucky, told a Kentucky television station Thursday.
But while Democrats, and Trump’s opponents in general, might be clamoring for an impeachment, it isn’t as simple as Democrats deciding they don’t like Trump. There are two big reasons for that.
First, impeachment is actually a relatively lengthy legal process — and no president has ever been removed from office. Second, removal from office requires a vote from two-thirds of the Senate, and Republicans — who still publicly back Trump, although some have criticized some of his recent decisions — still broadly support him.
Let’s be clear: Trump hasn’t been accused of any specific crimes. His opponents say he’s unfit for office, but that’s a judgment call, not a standard by which presidents can be impeached. The U.S. Constitution states that “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
But how those high crimes and misdemeanors are defined is largely up to House members themselves.
Actually removing a president from office is a three-step process. First, a majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote in favor of impeachment. That means 218 out of 435 members of the House would need to cast ballots to impeach the president. As of today, Republicans hold 238 seats while Democrats hold 193, and four seats are vacant. That means Democrats would need to persuade 25 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, which doesn’t seem likely.
Second, the president would face trial in the Senate. Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over the trial.
Third, the Senate would vote on whether to convict or acquit Trump. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote in favor of conviction for Trump to be removed from office — a pretty high bar, given that it’s hard for either party to get even the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative filibuster these days.
And history is on Trump’s side. Just two presidents have been impeached, and none has ever been removed from office.
Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached in 1868. In the wake of the Civil War, Johnson clashed with Republicans who wanted southern states to pay a higher price to rejoin the union. They eventually impeached him for attempting to replace his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without congressional permission, a contravention of the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that the president couldn’t relieve members of his Cabinet without consulting the Senate. Johnson’s impeachment went to trial in the Senate, and he escaped being removed from office by a one-vote margin.
Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached in 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded. He was charged with four counts, two of which he was impeached for: perjury and obstruction of justice. When it came to the Senate trial, all 45 Democrats voted to acquit him on both charges; they were joined by 10 Republicans in acquitting Clinton of the perjury charge, and five in acquitting him of the obstruction of justice charge.
In perhaps the most famous presidential scandal in American history, the president wasn’t impeached. When Richard Nixon left office in 1974, he faced almost certain impeachment, and likewise almost certain removal from office. But he chose to resign instead, handing the presidency to Gerald Ford.
Johnson, Nixon and Clinton were all publicly accused of transgressions for which there was publicly revealed evidence. While scandal swirled around all three, and their political opponents howled for their removal from office, none was actually removed by the political process laid out in the Constitution.
And as long as Trump retains the backing of Congress, he’s very unlikely to be removed either.