In the years before he became president, Donald Trump made a lot of money telling people they were fired. But if he doesn’t quickly hone his political skills, the shoe may soon be on the other foot.
A president can be impeached for treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors. Raoul Berger, a Harvard Law School legal history specialist, argued the narrow view in his 1973 classic, Impeachment: The Constitutional Problems: that impeachment is only a remedy for crimes committed by office holders. But Charles L. Black, a Yale Law School professor, is far more convincing when he argues in Impeachment: A Handbook, that “other high crimes and misdemeanors” refers to a much broader category of politically determined offenses, potentially including a sustained record of major political incompetence.
The political nature of impeachment is consistent with the constitutional framers’ decision to entrust the impeachment process to the legislature rather than the courts. As Gerald Ford famously noted in reference to efforts to impeach Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1970, “an impeachable offense is whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.”
The cumulative total of Trump’s self-inflicted political wounds climbs almost daily, and with each new crisis, Trump’s limited political capital erodes further. His ineptly handled firing of now-former FBI Director James Comey and the revelation that Trump may have cavalierly shared intelligence information with the Russians has severely undermined his domestic policy agenda. Repealing and replacing Obamacare and tax reform are heavy lifts in the poisonous partisan environment of contemporary Congress. Trump can expect no help from Democrats, who are too busy salivating at the prospects of Trump’s imminent political demise to think about reaching across the aisle.
And holding Republicans together has already proven difficult. Tough votes lie ahead—votes that have the potential to be career-ending for members of Congress, unless they lead to legislative accomplishments. A powerful president can provide political cover and support for legislators who take these tough votes, and he can issue threats against those who refuse to toe the party line. But Trump’s sagging popularity is undermining his congressional clout, and Republicans in Congress are therefore distancing themselves from the president.
Establishment political elites in both parties are dismissive of talk of impeachment at this point in the Trump presidency. Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Calif.) and other radical Democrats will be satisfied with nothing less than Trump’s head on a platter, but Nancy Pelosi has wisely steered clear: “You’re talking about impeachment,” she said. “You’re talking about, ‘What are the facts?’ Not, ‘I don’t like him,’ and, ‘I don’t like his hair.’ What are the facts? ‘I don’t like what he said about this’—what are the facts that you would make a case on?”
Pelosi understands that impeachment at this point would be political overreach, which could damage Democratic electoral prospects in the 2018 election. She remembers all too well the electoral losses Republicans suffered in 1998 when they impeached Bill Clinton, rather than settle for the more limited censure option. However, Pelosi’s opposition to impeachment is purely political, and she could easily become a proponent if the political winds shift.
No one doubts potential Democratic support for impeachment if Trump’s political positions suffer further erosion, but impeachment requires a majority vote in the House of Representatives, and the support of two-thirds of the Senate for conviction. Since Republicans control both chambers, impeachment could only proceed if a large number of Republicans conclude that the continuation of the Trump presidency would be ruinous for the party. While Trump’s popularity at this point in his presidency is at record lows, according to Gallup, there is no evidence that core Trump supporters are deserting him in droves. As long as this situation persists, Trump will remain in office.
Nevertheless, there are limits to the patience of Trump voters. They chose a political outsider knowing that a political novice would make rookie mistakes that a seasoned politician would avoid. That tradeoff seemed acceptable for those who wanted radical change in Washington. But the expectation was that Trump would be a quick study, and that rookie mistakes would give way to competent presidential leadership. If Trump continues on his current trajectory and fails to deliver on some of his promises, impeachment may become a serious option. Republicans in Congress might conclude that they would do better in the 2020 elections trying to re-elect President Mike Pence than President Donald Trump.
Donald Brand is a professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross.