In Unpacked, Brookings experts provide analysis of Trump administration policies and news
THE ISSUE: After reports that President Trump may have pressed former FBI Director James Comey to end an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, the possibility of impeachment is being discussed by political commentators and even some members of Congress. But history makes it clear that this would involve a long, delicate, and complicated process fraught with significant political and legal ramifications.
Presidential impeachment is a very delicate process, and it can take months or even years, but it’s the ultimate way that we can hold the president accountable.
THE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
Founding Director - Center for Effective Public Management
Senior Fellow - Governance Studies
- Article II of the United States Constitution states that the president can be impeached for bribery, treason, or high crimes and misdemeanors.
- Impeachment is triggered by an investigation that begins in the House Judiciary Committee. As a result of its investigation, the committee draws up articles of impeachment, which are then sent to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. If the House votes for impeachment, the process moves to the United States Senate for a trial.
- There are three examples of presidential impeachments in U.S. history:
- The first was President Andrew Johnson in 1868. His impeachment was the result of a serious disagreement with Congress over reconstruction and other political issues associated with it.
- Since then, there has been a feeling that a president should not be impeached due to political disagreement, which can weaken the separation of powers.
- The next presidential impeachment was Richard Nixon. With Nixon, the issue dealt with obstruction of justice.
- The third impeachment vote was for President Clinton over his affair with Monica Lewinsky, which was also related to obstruction of justice.
- Presidential impeachment is a very delicate process because of the separation of powers, but it is the ultimate way that we can hold the president or a member of the judiciary accountable.
- There are many issues in the Trump administration that could conceivably result in the creation of articles of impeachment.
- One issue is the possible violation of the Emoluments Clause, an obscure piece of the Constitution, which states that no person holding office can accept any present (or payment) from a foreign government. President Trump’s continued involvement with his businesses could be seen as a violation of this clause.
- If it’s discovered that the president was personally involved in the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee that could be grounds for impeachment.
- If it can be proved that the president tried to obstruct justice in any way (for instance, by telling the director of the FBI that he should back off his investigations into the Russian connections), that could also be grounds for impeachment.
- In order for an impeachment to move forward, a president’s own party has to get on board with an impeachment vote. For that to happen, it would mean that the president’s supporters in the electorate have lost faith in him. This demonstrates that beyond the legal grounds, impeachment has a political dimension.
- Impeachment is very difficult. It can take months or even years.
- For example, Democrats were calling for Nixon’s impeachment in the summer of 1972, but it took until August of 1974 before articles of impeachment were brought out of the Judiciary Committee and Richard Nixon resigned. His approval ratings were 22 to 25 percent at the time of his resignation.
- The legal and political components of impeachment have to move in tandem.
- It requires a length of time for people to understand the charges and the issues, and then to decide whether or not they think the problems are serious enough for a president that they elected to be turned out of office. That’s why this takes a while to play out.
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Elaine C. Kamarck is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Primary Politics: Everything You Need to Know about How America Nominates Its Presidential Candidates. She is a member of the Democratic National Committee and a superdelegate to the Democratic convention.