The mirage of Trump impeachment

For the good of the country, the leaders of the Democratic Party should forget about trying to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election and think about how they can win the 2020 election.

Jerrold Nadler, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said last week the committee will begin an inquiry or investigation into whether there is just cause to impeach President Donald Trump without specifying just what the impeachable offense is.

Impeachment is a serious matter and rare, as it should be.  The tried and true method of removing an unsatisfactory President is to not re-elect him.  Overturning the results of an election should only be done for a compelling and obvious reason.

If you claim an action by President Trump is impeachable, the first question to ask yourself is whether it would be impeachable if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton had done it.

Of the previous 44 Presidents, only two—Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton—were ever impeached, and neither one was convicted.  A third, Richard Nixon, resigned under threat of impeachment, and it is highly likely he would have been convicted.  Unlike with President Nixon and the Watergate investigation, there is no underlying, undeniable crime to investigate.

Originally, the idea was to determine whether Trump had tried to obstruct Robert Mueller’s investigation of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.  But if that doesn’t pan out, the committee will consider whether there are other grounds for impeachment.

An open-ended investigation of an individual for the purpose of finding a reason to accuse him of a crime is not impartial justice under law.  It is like the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton.  The purpose was to work toward a result—impeachment—no matter what the basis was.

An impeachment is like an indictment.  The House of Representatives, acting like a petit jury, can impeach a President or other federal official, including judges, senators and congressional representatives, by simple majority vote.

The case then goes to the Senate which, acting like a petit jury, can convict, but only by a two thirds vote of those present.  If convicted of the charges, the President is removed from office, and then can be tried in the courts for any crimes he may have committed.

Grounds for impeachment, as set forth in the Constitution, are “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

Being a bad President is not grounds for impeachment.  The Constitutional convention considered “maladministration” as grounds for impeachment, and rejected it in favor of “high crimes.”

What is a “high crime?”  Constitutional lawyers interpret this to mean abuse of the powers of one’s office, including ways that are technically legal.  For example, if an Attorney-General used his or her discretion to only prosecute members of the opposing political party and never to prosecute members of his or her own party, that might be grounds for impeachment.

The impeachment of Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson

Andrew Johnson was a bad President.  He was drunk at his own inauguration  President Abraham Lincoln picked him to run as Vice President in 1864 not because of his qualifications for office, but because he was a Tennessee Democrat who fought for the Union, and Lincoln hoped to pick up the pro-Union Democratic vote.

When Lincoln was murdered, Johnson became President.  He refused to enforce laws giving civil rights to freed slaves.  To curb his power, Congress enacted the Tenure of Office Act, which forbid him to fire Cabinet officers without consent of Congress.

He was impeached in 1868 for firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, in violation of the act.  Conviction failed by one vote in the Senate.  Courts later ruled that Johnson was correct in declaring the law unconstitutional.

The precedent is that impeachment for policy and political reasons is not justified.  It is not like a vote of “no confidence” in the British House of Commons.

The impeachment of Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998 for lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky and for doing things for her to persuade her to lie under oath.

There is no question that he was guilty as charged. If he  was not a sitting President, he probably would have been fined or even spent time in jail.  But the Senate concluded that his crimes were not serious enough to justify overturning the results of the 1996 election.

The precedent is that even a violation of the law is not necessarily grounds for impeachment.

The impeachment investigation of Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon resigned as President in 1974 after the House Judiciary Committee recommended he be impeached for abuse of power and obstruction of justice.  There is little doubt that the House would have voted to impeach on at least some of the charges and that the Senate would have voted to convict.

Richard Nixon

Nixon set up an illegal private intelligence and covert action group, called the Plumbers (because their original purpose was to prevent leaks of information), financed illegally with campaign funds.  Among other things, they burglarized the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate hotel in search of information, and burglarized Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, in hope of finding damaging information about the Pentagon Papers leaker.

He directed the Internal Revenue Service to audit the tax returns of his enemies, and to give him confidential information on tax returns

He set up a private slush fund that paid off potential witnesses so that they wouldn’t testify.  He lied to investigators and encouraged others to lie.  He encouraged witnesses to think they would receive favored treatment if they kept silent.  He interfered with the investigations by a Special Prosecutor, the FBI and the CIA.  And he refused to comply with congressional subpoenas.

A bi-partisan majority, including Republicans who’d voted for Nixon and supported his policies, agreed that this could not be tolerated.  When Nixon was informed of the sentiment against him, he resigned.

The precedent is that a President is not above the law.

Possible grounds for impeachment of Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Donald Trump is a bad president.  You don’t have to be a liberal or a Democrat to see this.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean he is guilty of impeachable offenses.

In my opinion, Donald Trump is guilty of crimes against humanity.  He condones acts of military aggression,  assassinations, torture and detention without trial.  But it would be hard to make a case that these are impeachable offenses because they were condoned when Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did them.

The Democrats hoped that Special Investigator Robert Mueller would prove that Trump conspired with Russians to influence the 2016 election, but Mueller reported he was unable to find sufficient evident of this.  I think the whole Russiagate conspiracy theory was overblown to begin.  But even if this isn’t so, can the House Judiciary Committee expect to do better than Mueller?

Mueller left open the possibility that Trump might be guilty of obstructing his investigation.  But so far as I can tell, his report does not show any actual obstruction.

This morning’s newspaper carried a report absit the House Judiciary Committee cross-examining Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski about the time that President Trump asked him to ask Attorney-General Jeff Sessions to reverse his decision to recuse himself from overseeing the Mueller investigation. Trump denies he made the request, and Lewandowski did not speak to Sessions.

Another example.  President Trump asked White House counsel Donald McGahn to fire Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, but McGahn didn’t do it.  Are these really crimes?  If so, are they crimes so serious that they justify removing an elected President from office?

Then there is the emoluments clause.  The Constitution forbids any federal office to accept “any present, emolument, office or title of any kind whatever from any king, prince or foreign state”.  What they had in mind were things like the Kings of France giving ambassadors diamond-encrusted works of art.

Does that clause cover foreign diplomats renting rooms in Trump Organization hotels at standard rates?  If so, does this justify removing an elected President from office?

President Trump’s desire to hold the G-7 summit conference at a Trump hotel is certainly a conflict of interest.  Maybe it is the equivalent of self-dealing by a corporate CEO.  But a reason for removal from office?  I don’t think the argument for this is open and shut.

Michael Cohen paid off Stormy Daniels for silence about her sex affair with Trump.  Because he did this during an election campaign, Trump’s opponents consider this to be an illegal campaign contribution.  Does this rise to the level of seriousness to justify removal of Trump from office?

The House Judiciary Committee has a right and duty to investigate corruption in the Trump administration, and Democrats have a right to make political hay out of what they may find.  But Nadler and the other Democratic leaders shouldn’t talk about impeachable offenses until and unless they find an impeachable offense..


The best thing Democratic leaders in the House could do is to put all the oversight committees to work investigating their various departments—energy, agriculture, education, HUD, the EPA and so on—to determine whether they are being administered honestly and whether they are being allowed to carry out their missions.

If, as I expect, they find that the Department of Labor does not enforce labor law, that the Environmental Protection Agency does not enforce environmental law, the Department of Justice does not prosecute financial fraud or enforce the anti-trust laws and so on, they should report this.

If, as I expect, they find evidence of corruption, they should call for resignations and prosecutions.  But if, as I do not expect, they find the departments and administrative agencies are doing a good job, they should have the honesty to admit this.

The best thing Democratic presidential candidates could do is to convince the public that they can succeed where President Trump has failed in enacting a trillion-dollar infrastructure program, in reforming trade policy so as to actually help American industry, to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better and to wind down the unending wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan.  And then actually do a better job if elected.

Pursuing the Trump impeachment mirage will not benefit them, and will not benefit the country.


The full text of the House Judiciary Committee resolution on the impeachment probe.

A Short History of Impeachment, 2016-2019 by Peter Van Buren for We Meant Well.

Trump, the Russian Puppet: A Story That Just Will Not Die by Philip Giraldi for the Strategic Culture Foundation.

For the First Time in My Life, I’m Against Impeaching the President by David Swanson for Eurasia Review.

The zombie movement to impeach Trump by Matthew Walther for The Week.

The Ukraine Scandal Might Be a Bad Gambit for Democrats by Aaron Maté for The Nation [Added 10/1/2019]

The Self-Set Impeachment Trap by Thomas Neuburger for Naked Capitalism.  [Added 10/5/2019]

Keeping Our Eyes on the Ball by Nathan J. Robinson for Current Affairs.  [Added 10/5/2019]

The Ukrainegate Whistleblower Isn’t a Real Whistleblower by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.  [Added 10/7/2019]

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4 Responses to “The mirage of Trump impeachment”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    I agree with you completely on this. The GOP did itself no favors with the Lewinsky witchhunt. They lost the respect of many people who retreated into a “Pox on both your houses!” position.

    Should the Democrats push for impeachment of Trump they have zero chance of a conviction. If you know you cannot get a conviction yet you try to prosecute anyhow, that’s malicious prosecution. It doesn’t matter if you “know” the party is guilty, You don’t get to prosecute as punishment for crimes that you know won’t be sustained by a jury. That’s no different than a cop performing street justice.

    Or at least you aren’t supposed to. It wouldn’t be the first time a prosecutor files high profile charges and poured massive resources into prosecuting a person who they knew would not be convicted purely for political capital. Sometimes even when they knew the person was factually innocent.


  2. Alex Page Says:

    Much of the ‘#resistance’ seems to want to wind the clock back before 2016. That’s not a way to win – it’s necessary to combat Trump with something meaningfully better. What’s the plan for if he was impeached, anyway?


    • philebersole Says:

      There is no realistic possibility that two-thirds of the Senate would vote to convict President Trump if he was impeached, and even if he was convictet, Vice-President Mike Pence would be just as bad, from a Democratic standpoint, as Trump.

      My guess is that the idea is to discredit the Republican Party by showing that Trump is guilty of impeachable offenses and that the Republican leadership won’t do anything about it.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. petersironwood Says:

    Put together all the lies and all the crimes of all the previous Presidents. Don’t put them in a *category* like “broke a law” — just the actual actions of the POTUSs and there is no comparison. Trump beats the entire 44 Presidents before him in the range, number, & egregiousness of his high crimes and misdemeanors.


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