Thursday, June 08, 2017

What it takes to impeach a President and why we're not remotely close to impeaching President Trump.

 It takes testimony under oath and corroborating physical evidence of a criminal act. 
To Impeach or Not to Impeach...
Democratic representatives Brad Sherman and Al Green are drafting resolutions to impeach Donald Trump with the apparent intent of introducing said resolution in the House of Representatives. They are cheered on by extreme partisans on the left. However, more rational Democratic Party leadership understand just how premature any such consideration is at this time.

Conventional wisdom informs us that impeachment proceedings against a sitting President will not happen while the legislative branch is in control of the same party as the President. History bears this out, as impeachment actions against Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were all initiated when the House of Representatives was controlled by the opposition party. But with President Trump, history and conventional wisdom may be steering us in the wrong direction, as many establishment Republicans would far prefer Mike Pence as President. Regardless, it is certainly true that divided government would make impeachment easier and the 2018 midterm election looms large.

The unfolding James Comey testimony, and in particular his opening statement published a day earlier, has precipitated predictably contradictory analysis of whether the threshold for impeachment has been crossed or not.

That is the Question
For those of us of a certain age, the question of what it takes to impeach a sitting President, or force a President to resign under threat of impeachment, is not a hypothetical historical exercise. We've seen it twice in our lifetime. We saw President Clinton impeached but not convicted. We saw President Nixon resign under threat of impeachment. In both cases, congressional leadership from the party of the President calling out the President were critical factors.  In both cases, there was an evidentiary Rubicon that had to be crossed before impeachment became a realistic possibility.

Clinton's Case:
On September 3, 1998 - Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman took to the floor of the Senate to call out the President:
"Let us as a nation honestly confront the damage that the president's actions over the last seven months have caused... let us be guided by the conscience of the Constitution, which calls on us to place the common good above any partisan or personal interest, as we now in our time work together to resolve this serious challenge to our democracy."
And on October 8, 1998 Democratic Representative Paul McHale of Pennsylvania said:
"We cannot excuse that kind of misconduct because we happen to belong to the same party as the president or agree with him on issues or feel tragically that the removal of the president from office would be enormously painful for the United States of America."
Nixon's Case:
On August 7, 1974 - Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott met Nixon in the Oval Office and told him there was not enough Republican support to avoid impeachment and conviction. Nixon resigned the next day.

The Critical Path and Key Factors To Impeachment
In both cases, leadership of the President's party was key to unlocking the impeachment. But what forced their hand? Two things:
  1. A co-conspirator testifying under oath to the President committing a crime. 
  2. The emergence of undeniable physical evidence corroborating that testimony. 
In 1974 it was co-conspirator John Dean, White House Counsel to President Nixon, testifying under oath that the President was party to a cover-up and obstruction of justice. That was not enough in and of itself. It was Dean's word against Nixon. The physical evidence of Nixon, speaking on taped recordings, revealed by Alexander Butterfield, corroborated John Dean's testimony and undid the Nixon Presidency.

In 1998 it was co-conspirator Monica Lewinski, White House intern, testifying under oath that the President committed perjury about their sexual relations. That was not enough in and of itself. It was Lewinsky's word against Clinton. The physical DNA evidence on her blue dress, revealed by Linda Tripp, corroborated Monica Lewinsky's testimony and resulted in President Clinton's impeachment and trial in the Senate.

So with history as our guide, this is what we need to see before taking seriously any potential impeachment proceeding against President Trump:
  1. A co-conspirator testifying under oath to the President committing a crime. 
  2. The emergence of undeniable physical evidence corroborating that testimony. 
As of today, including James Comey's public testimony, we have not seen any such evidence. This evidence may exist, it may not. Testimony implicating the President in a crime may emerge in the various investigations, or it may not. But until we see co-conspirator testimony, corroborated by undeniable physical evidence, any expectations of an impending impeachment of President are - to put it mildly - wildly, insanely premature.

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