Apr 4, 2017, 10:56 AM
Shortly after last year’s US presidential election, Allan Lichtman received a thank-you note from Donald Trump. The historian was one of the few people to have predicted the outcome. “Professor — Congrats — good call” was all it said. Trump may have thought twice about sending the note had he known of Lichtman’s other forecast — that he would be impeached in office. In The Case for Impeachment, Lichtman sets out why Trump deserves that fate.
The president’s list of potentially convictable offences ranges from the highly plausible, such as collusion with a foreign power, to the very improbable — “crimes against humanity” for dropping America’s fight against global warming. Some of this sounds like wishful thinking. But Lichtman has a history of accurate forecasts. Until Trump, no president had started in office with broad speculation about his impeachment. That said, the odds against it look steep.
The key point about impeaching a US president is that it is a political decision. The law has very little to do with it. One person’s “high crimes and misdemeanours” could be another person’s politics as usual. No judges are involved at any stage in the process. The alacrity with which most of the Republican party turned from Russophobia to Russophilia since Trump became its nominee last year can only be explained by partisan loyalty.
Since Republicans control both chambers of Congress, it would be little short of cataclysmic for Trump to be impeached within the next 18 months. He would have to alienate his own party to the point of outright enmity. Should the Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives in next year’s midterm elections, however, the chances of impeachment would rise sharply.
Indeed, at the current rate of progress, impeaching Trump could turn into a key Democratic rallying cry in 2018. If Democrats won on that basis, the ball would start rolling.
Under the US constitution, impeachment begins with a simple majority vote in the House. It then moves to a full trial in the Senate.
The president can be impeached only by a two-thirds majority of the upper chamber. Just two US presidents — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — have been impeached in the House. None has been convicted in the Senate.
It is likely that Richard Nixon would have been impeached. But he resigned before Congress could finish the job and was instantly pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. Like Nixon, Trump has an extravagant reading of the US president’s legal immunity.
Trump believes that none of the usual laws of the land apply to the US commander-in-chief. In many areas that is true. You cannot sue a US president for carrying out his duties in office. Standard federal ethics laws do not apply. Unique though Trump’s entanglements may be, he can retain ownership of his business without breaching the constitution. That is precisely what he has done.
One obvious reason why Trump is refusing to publish the White House visitor logs may be that he wants to conceal how often his two sons, Donald Junior and Eric, come and go. He has turned over the running of The Trump Organization to them in what must be the most well-sighted blind trust in political history.
But two important laws do apply to the US president.
The first is the emoluments clause of the US constitution, which forbids him from taking any gifts from a foreign power.
The second is a law that bans public officials from profiting from insider knowledge. In each case, Lichtman believes there is enough evidence to start proceedings already. Trump has pledged to donate profits from foreign officials staying at his hotels to the US Treasury. Not a cent has arrived. Nor has he disclosed how he would calculate the yield.
What is clear, however, is that the Trump International Hotel in Washington is brimming with visiting dignitaries. That is not to mention Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s “winter White House”, which doubled its membership fees to $200,000 shortly after his inauguration. Moreover, a US president can be impeached for acts carried out before he reached office. That is what happened to Bill Clinton, whose alleged sexual harassment of Paula Jones took place while he was governor of Arkansas.
Before Trump reached office he had been subject to more civil law suits than the other 43 presidents combined. He has appeared as a plaintiff 1,900 times, a defendant 1,450 times and has been involved in bankruptcy or third-party suits 150 times, according to a list compiled by USA Today. Some of these cases, including a prominent sexual harassment suit, may well end up in court. If Trump lied under oath, as Clinton was caught doing, that could light the fuse for a far larger inquiry.
The same applies in spades to the multiple Russia investigations. Lichtman points out that Nixon faced impeachment for what was arguably the least important of his three big offences — the burglary of the Democratic offices in the Watergate complex. Even then, it was the cover-up, rather than the crime itself, that led to Nixon’s undoing. Nixon’s other two offences were crimes against humanity with his illegal bombing of Cambodia, and treason for secret negotiations with North Vietnam to prevent a ceasefire from taking hold before he was elected.
The latter came to light only after Nixon had resigned. In contrast, the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is already the subject of one of the largest FBI investigations in years.
Even if it failed to prove direct connivance, investigations tend to gather momentum that lead in unexpected directions. Few public figures would emerge clean from this kind of scrutiny. Clinton was impeached for lying under oath about his dalliance with a White House intern. The investigation had started as an inquiry into property deals he had carried out years earlier in Arkansas.
The more investigators look at Trump’s business dealings, the more potential leads they will find. At some point Trump may be compelled to disclose his tax records. His refusal to do so is another post-Nixon breach of precedent. Where might this all lead? It is futile to predict.
But Lichtman’s powerful book is a reminder that we are only at the start of the Trump investigations. The US system takes a long time to gather speed. Once it does, it can be hard to stop.
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