The Politics of Impeachment

President Trump has been in the media for a variety of misconduct during recent months: see the developments surrounding Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, as well as Trump’s mocking of the testimony of Dr. Christine Ford. However, as the 2018 midterm elections bear on the collective consciousness of Washington, the likelihood of Trump’s impeachment, and whether his actions can be deemed impeachable, have garnered significant attention. Representatives such as Al Green of Texas have called for Trump’s impeachment as early as May of 2017, and many have speculated that, should the Democrats win a congressional majority in November, Trump will face an impeachment resolution. Such a reality begs two questions: what qualifies an act as “impeachable,” and do any of the actions for which President Trump is under investigation warrant the invocation of the impeachment clause? Hamilton’s Federalist 65 details impeachable offenses as “Treason, Bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors.” While treason and bribery are each self-evident, whether a “high crime or misdemeanor” has been committed rests mostly on the facts of the individual case.  Despite the degree to which partisanship has recently influenced political proceedings in the U.S., impeachment proceedings must remain untouched by individual party interests. Impeachment represents a safeguard of democracy, rather than a partisan device, its proceedings must be treated as an assertion of democratic, rather than party values.

The two most egregious offenses for which President Trump may be impeached are the extent to which he may have been involved in Russia’s infringement throughout the 2016 U.S. election process, and any potential obstruction of justice that Trump may have been involved in during the investigation. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, appointed in May of 2017, has been investigating the President’s connection to Russian interference in the 2016 election. American intelligence organizations have concluded strongly that a) Russian organizations, at least thirty three separate entities, did infringe on the 2016 election, and b) that multiple of Trump’s close aides and advisors were intertwined with Russian infringement in the 2016 election, most notably George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos, Trump’s foreign affairs campaign advisor, was indicted and found guilty for lying to the F.B.I. in late 2017. However, what remains to be seen is the degree to which then-candidate Trump was aware of the actions of his aides, and by extension of the Russians. Ultimately, the question of whether Trump knew of Russia’s involvement, and by extension whether he himself colluded, will determine whether he has committed treason or conspired to some degree to commit treason.

The obstructions of justice for which Trump faces investigation presumably include the firing of former FBI director James Comey, the initial head of the Russia investigation, and the stripping of the security clearances of many former government officials, most notably former CIA director John Brennan. While the President ultimately maintains nomination and firing power for his Cabinet, of which the directors of the FBI and CIA are members, arbitrarily removing cabinet members for fear of opposition potentially presents an abuse of executive power.  To reiterate, much of what qualifies as an impeachable abuse of power is largely situational; yet, any arbitrary action undertaken by the executive ought to give the public pause. In this vein, many have questioned the validity of John Brennan’s dismissal and the subsequent stripping of his security clearances, citing Trump’s charge of Brennan as “too ‘political’” as potentially indicative of foul play.

Ultimately, the probability of President Trump’s impeachment will rest heavily on the midterm elections. First, it is unlikely that Mueller will offer a recommendation given the findings of his investigation until after the midterm elections. While the Special Counsel is under no obligation to adhere to the legislature’s timeline, restraint is Mueller’s best option in order to avoid influencing, or at least appearing to influence, the outcome of the election. Second, it remains in the hands of the soon-to-be-elected House of Representatives to choose a course of action based on Mueller’s recommendation. Many Republicans hold the conviction that following the midterm election, should a Democratic House of Representatives initiate the impeachment process, and should the Senate remain Republican, President Trump will remain in office. They go on to contend that just as the impeachment of President Clinton, Trump’s impeachment will help his approval ratings, securing his second term in 2020.

Viewed in a different, more significant light, the issue of impeachment in many ways transcends the specific situation of President Trump: currently, it manifests as a symbolic struggle between party interests and the tenets of democracy.  As partisanship has grown, the democratic values and proceedings established to unite and protect the interests of the federal political body have merely been treated as tools to further short-term, unilateral interests. By extension, while partisan politics has corrupted the investigation process irreparably, it is indispensable to maintain the recognition that the issue of impeachment at its core is not partisan. Rather, it poses a challenging question of morality and commitment to democratic values with which all elected officials and constituents must come to grips. With the constant stream of scandals, it feels as though the gravity of the Presidential office has been diminished; although, one may make the argument that given events such as Nixon’s Watergate and Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Presidency may never have retained this gravity in the first place.

Nevertheless, impeachment was not intended to and should not be a device used to further the unilateral interests of one party, whether it be to remove an Executive of the opposition or as a re-election scheme for the incumbent. As the Mueller investigation continues to unfold, such an awareness must be kept in mind when examining the specific situation of President Trump. Ultimately, impeachment is a safeguard against tyranny and the abuse of high office. The ability to question the commitment of, and potentially remove, the Executive represents the sanctity of democracy and the sovereign right of individuals to representation that upholds not only their interests, but their honor.