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What it would take to impeach Trump—yes, people are already asking
The path out of the White House can be even more difficult than the path in.
President Donald Trump has only occupied the White House for a short time, but many Americans are already focused on what it’ll take to get him out.
In the hours after Trump’s upset election victory, Google searches for “how to impeach a president” went up by nearly 5,000 percent. Unsurprisingly perhaps, America’s Heartland wasn’t doing most of the Googling: The top five states that saw the highest percentage increase in searches were Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, and Colorado.
Since Trump took office, various searches for “how to impeach Trump” have again gained stream.
So, what exactly would it take to impeach President Trump?
1) What it mean to impeach a president, and who has the power to do it
The ability to impeach a president sits with the House of Representatives and appears to be the ultimate check and balance on executive powers. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the Constitution gives the House the right to impeach—to formally approve allegations of wrongdoing and remove from office, known as articles of impeachment— any sitting president, vice-president, or head of a federal agency. But the road to impeachment is a long and convoluted process that can take months. It requires cooperation from both houses of Congress, which are currently controlled by Republicans.
2) Congress has a very limited history of impeaching presidents.
The House has only impeached two presidents in its history: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both were acquitted. President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, before Congress could impeach him. Calls from the public and some in Congress to impeach former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama didn’t shape out. John Boehner (R-Ohio), while he was speaker of the House, and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said an impeachment drive for Obama would be a waste of time.
Professor Michael J. Gerhardt, author of The Federal Impeachment Process, which looks at the legal and constitutional issues that arose during Clinton’s and other impeachment trials, says impeaching the president can be an arduous task and not the best way to handle Congress’ problems with a president.
“After the impeachment trial for President Clinton,” Gerhardt said in an email to the Daily Dot, “the perceptions among some people were that impeachment was not a good mechanism for partisan retaliation against a president, and that impeachment was not a good mechanism for handling presidential misconduct—that it was too cumbersome and the thresholds too high to work effectively against a president, particularly a popular one.”
3) Some legal experts believe there is already grounds to impeach Trump.
University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor Christopher L. Peterson believes there’s sufficient evidence to impeach Trump on charges of fraud and racketeering related to Trump University.
“In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump faces three lawsuits accusing him of fraud and racketeering,” Peterson writes in a September 2016 paper arguing the legal justification for impeaching Trump. “These ongoing cases focus on a series of wealth seminars called ‘Trump University,’ which collected over $40 million from consumers seeking to learn Trump’s real estate investing strategies. Although these consumer protection cases are civil proceedings, the underlying legal elements in several counts that plaintiffs seek to prove run parallel to the legal elements of serious crimes under both state and federal law.”
But even if wrongdoing exists, there must also be a political desire to impeach Trump, as well as consensus from both Houses of Congress.
“The big problem for Democrats is, of course, that they don’t control either chamber of Congress, much less have the [two-thirds majority] in the Senate necessary to convict,” said Josh Chafetz, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University, in an email to the Daily Dot. “Any impeachment would have to have the full support of Republican leadership.”
In short, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would have to be on board with a Trump impeachment, and they’d have to get a lot of their fellow Republicans to agree with them.
4) The House would first have to decide the grounds on which the impeachment is based. And then vote on it.
According to CRS, the president must be found to have engaged in “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” to be impeached. The House usually launches a formal investigation into the president’s alleged misconduct, which they must vote on to authorize.
The entire House must then agree upon the “articles of impeachment,” or the specific justifications for impeachment. In the case of Clinton, the House approved two articles of impeachment, charging him with lying under oath to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice.
According to CRS, the categories for impeachment grounds are:
- Improperly exceeding or abusing the powers of office
- Behavior incompatible with the function and the purpose of the office
- Misusing the office for an improper purpose or personal gain
It’s up to the House Judiciary Committee (currently chaired by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) to decide what the articles of impeachment will be. This is usually after weeks of hearings and reviewing evidence into the president’s alleged misconduct. The entire House of Representatives then must vote to approve the articles of impeachment.
If a simple majority of the House approves the articles, it then goes to the Senate. A simple majority would require a total of 218 votes in the house. In 2017, the House will have a total of 239 Republicans and 192 Democrats.
In the case of a Trump impeachment, every single one of the House Democrats and 26 House Republicans must sign-on. And that’s just the beginning.
5) The Senate would then conduct impeachment proceedings.
After the House approves the articles of impeachment, it’s up to the Senate to decide if it wishes to hold an impeachment trial. The Senate then sets a date for an impeachment trial, during which the chief justice of the Supreme Court would preside and the president would testify.
For a look at a real-life impeachment trial, see below:
6) The Senate would then have to vote on convicting the president.
For the president to be removed from office, two-thirds of the Senate must vote to convict the official. In other words, a total of 67 “aye” votes on Trump’s impeachment.
Republicans will hold at least 51 seats in the incoming Senate, with Democrats holding at least 48 seats; one seat, from Louisiana, won’t be decided until a December runoff vote because the race was too close to call.
Either way that race goes, it’s nowhere near the supermajority Democrats would need to kick Trump out of the White House on their own.
7) Under the powers of the 25th amendment, Vice President Mike Pence could take over.
What if impeachment investigations into Trump fall flat? There is a last-ditch, emergency method for removing the president buried within the 25th amendment of the Constitution.
If Vice President Mike Pence, along with a majority of Congress and/or Trump’s cabinet, believe that the president is unfit for office, there’s a process laid out in Article 4 of the 25th amendment for the president’s removal.
Article 4 states:
“Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.”
Article 4 of the 25th amendment has never been used, and perhaps for good reason—it allows the president to easily fight back. Even if the vice president and the majority of the president’s cabinet and/or Congress decide that the president is unfit for office, Article 4 gives the president a path to delay his removal and perhaps work out some deals.
If President Trump responds with a written declaration that he is, in fact, fit for office, he can immediately take back the office he just relinquished to Pence.
Pence would then have four days to submit a written declaration to Congress. Congress then has a little under a month to vote on the issue in a special session.
Article 4 further states:
“If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.”
As the days pass, national anxiety over uncertainty in the White House could rise. But people may prefer Trump remain in office for the sake of stability. During the Watergate hearings, former President Richard Nixon’s Gallup favorability ratings took a big hit. Even though 71 percent of Americans believed Nixon was culpable in wrong-doing, only 26 percent thought the president should be impeached or forced to resign, according to Gallup polls from 1974.
Other factors may throw a wrench into Trump’s impeachment process. Scandals and backroom deals involving Pence or another member of Trump’s cabinet may come into light. The public’s cynicism of Washington politicians—including Trump—would likely increase.
The immense political fallout from invoking the 25th Amendment is what makes it such an unlikely option for Pence and Congress. Trump would have to do something truly egregious to draw the ire of his cabinet and Pence, who have all been on his side since his election.
“It would have to be very bizarre behavior by the president,” Northeastern University Professor Robert Gilbert told CBS News, referring to use of the 25th Amendment. “More bizarre than what we’ve seen.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated for relevance.
Amrita Khalid is a technology and politics reporter who specializes in breaking down complex issues into practical, useful terms. A former contributor to CQ, a Congressional news and analysis site, she's currently a master's candidate in international relations at the University of Leeds.