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Remember, impeachment is just the start of the removal process

At the moment, roughly (and exactly) zero Republican senators have publicly expressed any interest in voting to convict and remove President Trump from office.

President Donald Trump
REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
If Trump can violate the Constitution in various ways and nonetheless survive an effort to remove him for it, where does that leave us?
I don’t much care whether Donald Trump is impeached. I care immensely whether he is removed from office so that the enormous threat that he represents to democracy in America is sidelined. Those are not the same thing, and I’m surprised at how often people talk about them as if they are, or talk about “impeachment” as though it’s the same thing as removal from impeachment.

As a technical matter (but it’s way more than technical), the “I” word refers specifically to something that happens in the U.S. House, requiring only a majority vote, to essentially indict a president of some thing or things under the ambiguous constitutional rubric of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Such a majority vote, which might pass given the partisan breakdown of the House, generates a trial in the Senate.

If, after the trial, the president is convicted — by a two-thirds vote of the Senate — of any of the alleged high crimes and misdemeanors, he would be removed and replaced by his vice president.

The Senate is currently controlled by a narrow majority of 53 Republicans, not one of whom has publicly indicated the slightest current interest in voting to convict and remove Donald Trump from office for any real or imagined crime or misdemeanor on which he might be indicted by a presumably lopsidedly partisan impeachment vote in the Democratically controlled House.

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I say the following with a confidence bordering on certainty: The Senate is not going to vote by a two-thirds majority, which would require at least 20 (!!!!) Republican votes, to convict and remove Donald Trump from office. Maybe I’m wrong. But if what you want is to actually see Trump’s tenure end before his term is up, that 20 is the number you have to get. From here, I call that beyond unlikely.

I do assume that a substantial number of Republican senators harbor private feelings of horror/disgust about Donald Trump’s many shortcomings. Those who clearly despise Trump and have, at one time or another, made that clear, have either departed (Jeff Flake) or decided not to talk about it as much or as clearly as they once did  (like former never-Trumper Mitt Romney, who once said, “Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony. A fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing members of the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House, and all we get is a lousy hat.”)

So Romney, who is 72 and rich and clearly understands what Trump is, might vote to convict. Maybe you think there are a couple of others. But 20?

At the moment, roughly (and exactly) zero Republican senators have publicly expressed any interest in voting to convict and remove him from office. There was one in the House, Justin Amash, who has done so, but then felt obliged to leave the party. And the House isn’t where you need to find the missing 20 votes.

If you think that a House vote to impeach Trump, followed by a Senate vote to acquit him, will help the Democratic 2020 nominee win the election, that’s one thing. I don’t claim to know, but I don’t particularly think so, and it could easily have the opposite effect.

That, of course, gets us to the other mechanism that exists under our Constitution for ending the Trump presidency: defeating him in 2020. I look at polls much more than is rationally justifiable and more than is good for my mental and emotional health. I’m not convinced he’s gonna lose, but the chances seem a lot higher of that than of the two-thirds Senate vote to remove him.

I am so convinced of Trump’s disrespect for our constitutional system that I do not dismiss the idea that if he loses in 2020 he will refuse to leave. Where that scenario would go I can’t quite picture. He has an expansive view of his not-mentioned-in-the-Constitution “emergency” powers and would have more than two months to work on a coup plan between Election Day and Inauguration Day. 

But the chance he would depart, if defeated in the 2020 election (and the bigger the margin, the harder it would be for him to justify disputing the result), strikes me (of course I don’t really have any idea) as much likelier than finding 20 Republican senators (that would be 38 percent of the Republican caucus) who will vote to convict and remove him.

A lot of my fellow Trump dislikers are upset that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is holding back the impeachment process. But I wish, when they make the case to proceed, they would discuss it in the context of the problem I describe above. The 20 Republican Senate votes. 

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I view Pelosi as very smart, especially politically smart but most especially smart about congressional politics. Although she hasn’t confided in me even slightly, I suspect that her go-slow-on-impeachment strategy is based on her reading of the close-to-nil chance that Trump will be convicted in the Senate and a more nuanced assessment of how proceeding with impeachment will affect the 2020 election, both for president and for Congress.

I don’t know if her strategy of holding back impeachment proceedings is right or wrong, but I wish those who want to go forward to impeachment hearings would explain how it fits into a larger context of the best way to get someone better into the Oval Office on Jan. 20, 2021.

Lastly, I’ll mentioned that liberal crusader and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who is much smarter than I, doesn’t agree with me. He explains his view in this video. But neither does he address the argument I’m making. Reich argues that if Trump can violate the Constitution in various ways and get away with it, it sets a terrible precedent and perhaps changes the balance of powers across branches forever.

Sure. But Reich doesn’t address my main point. If Trump can violate the Constitution in various ways and nonetheless survive an effort to remove him for it, where does that leave us, and whom and what does it strengthen or weaken?