On the Likelihood of Impeachment

A lot of us thought that articles of impeachment would be brought against the president of the United States shortly after the inauguration, because a lot of us thought that Hillary Clinton would be that president.  Now that it is Donald Trump who is president, our fear of impeachment has become our hope.  How likely is the hope of an impeachment and conviction of the president to be realized?  Not very.

First, we rarely impeach presidents.  Only two presidents have been impeached, although it is clear that Nixon would have been impeached too had he not resigned. So, just as a statistical matter, Trump’s impeachment is unlikely.

Second, of the two presidents that were actually impeached, neither was convicted in the Senate.  So, if impeachment is rare, removal of the president is rarer still.

Third, in all three cases, the party that had a majority in the House of Representatives was different from that of the president.  Because Trump’s party is the same as that of the majority in the House, an impeachment by this Congress would have no precedent in that regard.

We would like to think that congressmen would rise above party politics when it came to the serious question of impeaching a president, but our most recent example does not inspire much confidence.  As I remember it, Republicans tended to say that President Bill Clinton should be impeached for committing perjury and obstruction of justice, while the Democrats said it was just sex.  Regardless of which side was right, there is no question that there was a strong correlation between one’s opinion on the matter and one’s party affiliation.

Finally, in talking about impeachment, it is inevitable that some party pooper will point out that even if we were to impeach, convict, and remove Trump from office, Mike Pence would become president.  Under normal circumstances, this would be a most undesirable result for us Democrats; but right now, I’d say Mike Pence is starting to look pretty good.  And, as far as Republicans are concerned, Mike Pence is someone a lot of them would have preferred all along.

On the other hand, the fact that Al Gore would have become president had Bill Clinton been removed from office was not sufficient to change the outcome.  Even though Al Gore would then have been an incumbent president in 2000, which is always a greater advantage to a candidate than being the sitting vice president, and thus he would have been more likely to beat George W. Bush, Democrats were still opposed to Clinton’s impeachment.  So, Republicans, as much as they might prefer Pence, will not likely impeach Trump.

Though it is unfortunate that considerations of impeachment are as political as they are, yet it could have been much worse. When the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which changed the way we pick the vice president, it is unlikely that anyone was thinking about the implications for impeachment at that time.  However, had the Twelfth Amendment never been ratified, the vice president would be the one who got the second most electoral votes.  In short, absent this amendment, Hillary Clinton would now be the vice president of the United States.

If you think political considerations make Trump’s impeachment unlikely now, without the Twelfth Amendment, it would be completely out of the question. Trump really could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it.  On the other hand, should the Democrats win control of the House of Representatives in 2018, the temptation to impeach Trump and put Hillary in the White House would be irresistible.  Trump aside, anytime the majority party in the House was the same as that of the vice president, you could expect the House to impeach the president for spitting on the sidewalk.  The odds of impeachment would veer from impossible to inevitable every time the majority in the House changed to a different party in a midterm election.

However this turns out, we should be grateful for this serendipitous consequence of the Twelfth Amendment.