August 26, 2018

CHANG | The Unintended Consequences of Impeachment

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I get it. You want Trump out of office. You find him despicable, a security threat, the embodiment of racism and most of all unfit for the presidency. But even in light of last week’s political firestorm that found two members of the president’s staff guilty on criminal charges, we should put faith in democracy and wait before passing judgement.

Presidents can be impeached and removed for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” according to Article II, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. Any member of the House of Representatives may begin the impeachment process. The House then votes on the charges. If a simple majority votes for impeachment, the case is tried in the Senate. Finally, two-thirds of the Senate must vote for removal.

Given that the Justice Department has ruled (for good reason) that sitting presidents cannot be indicted or criminally prosecuted, the House must determine whether President Trump’s actions warrant the astronomical fallout of impeachment. There is some support among Democrats: six House Democrats filed to begin impeachment proceedings in November 2017, alleging obstruction of justice after the president fired FBI Director James Comey.

On the whole, few favor impeachment, although this could change depending on the public reaction to the Manafort verdict and Cohen plea. The latest polls from June 2018 indicate 51 percent do not feel the president should be impeached. Representatives and Senators ultimately answer to their constituents. So far, they have put faith in congressional and judicial authority to structurally tamp the executive’s power. They are working on bipartisan bills that return jurisdiction over trade to Congress and decrease the regulatory ability of executive agencies.

There are several legal pathways to impeachment. President Trump may have violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution that prohibits public officials from maintaining foreign business holdings. He allegedly disclosed sensitive national security information about ISIL to Russian officials, possibly breaching his Oath of Office.The ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 Election could dredge up more material for Democrats to exploit. Then, we have new information about the president from last week.

For the most part, Paul Manafort’s conviction on eight counts of bank fraud and tax evasion mean very little for the president, because the charges are personal in nature. If the president pardons Manafort (which isn’t all that absurd), the act would be labeled as an illegal obstruction of justice. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to violating campaign finance laws and paying off Playboy model Stormy Daniels with Trump’s direction, a more serious problem for the president’s credibility and legitimacy. Moreover, the Cohen plea counters the White House’s disinformation campaign against the Mueller investigation.

But successfully impeaching President Trump would be an uphill battle and removing him from office would be even more difficult. Historically, only Presidents Clinton and Andrew Johnson have been impeached, and neither president was removed. The current Republican control of Congress makes impeachment very unlikely, even with more scandalous catastrophes. With that being said, the Cohen and Manafort convictions fuel the possibility of Democrats flipping enough seats in the Midterms for impeachment. Democrats should coalesce around that talking point instead of spending valuable energy on contemplating impeachment.

If the Senate removes President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence becomes the president. For everyone except the staunchest conservatives, that’s a problem. Pence would efficiently rubber stamp the conservative agenda. He would institute very hawkish foreign policy, cut entitlement program spending and restrict LGBTQ+ marriage. As a native Hoosier, I would usually be proud to see a former governor in national office, but the prospect of Pence as president scares me. There’s something about conversion therapy that doesn’t sit well with my stomach.

As Lawfares’ editors argue, “major investigations that touch the president directly are always dangerous.” Impeachment talk will likely distract the president, but the office requires constant diligence to respond to new developments. The risk of President Trump lashing out is too high. We simply don’t know how he may react. It is better to wait to impeach until there is an airtight case (if there is an airtight case). If not, the president may be tempted to launch diversionary tactics (usually wars) in a tried-and-true method to increase his popularity.

Impeaching President Trump undermines our democracy’s legitimacy. Politicians are taken down by clever reporting and elections, not by acting on regret. As Tufts Professor Daniel Drezner notes, “For Trump to lose properly, it has to be at the ballot box.” Any other way would framed as a coup in our hyperpolarized polity. Breitbart and Fox would blow a gasket even as CNN celebrated.

If you hate Trump so much, vote in 2018. Vote in 2020. For  now, let our system of checks and balances do its job before crying for impeachment.

 

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.