If the collective wishes of “liberal” America came true, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, would long have left the Oval Office in disgrace. Instead, it is Trump who has in the past two years mocked and outraged the sensitivities of the Washington establishment with impunity and shook its very structure. The set of norms and work ethics he has introduced and the set of policies—economic and political—he has tried to pursue have sharply polarised the country and left the US almost friendless.
Much of the apprehension about Trump stems from his attempt to normalise relations with America’s traditional ‘cold war’ adversary Russia, heightened by the alleged connections, now under scrutiny, between Trump’s presidential campaign and Moscow. But his critics believe it has gone far beyond that, as the real estate tycoon-turned-politician threatens the values and principles cherished in America, as exemplified in impolitic behaviour practically every month.
Trump’s many detractors are now putting together their energy and resources, busy collecting evidence that could successfully carry through an impeachment motion in the Senate and unseat him.
The immediate provocation for a possible impeachment has come from recent developments, particularly Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s confession that he paid hush money to two Trump mistresses during his campaign, disguising them as legal expenses, as well as other financial crimes. In US law, this amounted to illegal campaign contribution. It is serious because Cohen claims he did it on the instruction of Trump—ground enough for impeachment, if proven. In addition, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, was held guilty for bank and tax fraud.
Though all this has injected urgency in the anti-Trump camp, impeaching the president is not easy. No American president has ever been impeached, though three of them had faced impeachment proceedings in the US Congress. Richard Nixon resigned even before the trial reached the Senate. The other two, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, survived the Senate trial.
The fathers of America’s constitution had ensured that they do not create another ‘monarch’. But despite the checks-and-balances in place to curb presidential power by empowering the Congress, the constitution also insulated a president from persecution during his incumbency.
The only way to remove a president from office is by impeaching him and this can be done by bringing charges of either “treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanours” against him. Any or all these charges, according to the US constitution, can form the basis of a trial to start an impeachment motion.
Any Congressman can move a resolution in the House of Representatives and get it passed through a simple majority for it to go to the Senate for trial. But, in the House of elders, one would require a two-thirds majority—67 senators in the 100-member Senate—who would agree to impeach a president. As long as Trump has the support of 34 senators, he is safe.
Andrew Johnson was the first president to face impeachment in 1867. Though a Democrat senator from a southern state, he was close to Abraham Lincoln and became president after Lincoln’s assassination. His veto against the 14th amendment, giving Blacks citizenship, and the sacking of his war minister forced Republican Congressmen to impeach him. He survived by one vote. Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal made him the second president to face impeachment proceedings in 1974. He saved himself from the ignominy by resigning. Bill Clinton faced impeachment for perjury during the Monica Lewinsky affair. But, with a 72 per cent approval rating and a booming economy, he, too, escaped impeachment.
Similarly, Trump is on firm ground—the US economy is currently growing at over 2 per cent and his approval rating among his supporters, a significant 35 per cent of the electorate, has remained steady.
All this reminds one what political commentator Tom Carver had said during the Clinton episode—“Bill Clinton’s survival may give future presidents the determination to stonewall and prevaricate, but they had better make sure they are popular.” Despite Trump’s galumphing disregard for propriety, he hardly seems to have a problem on that count.