Donald Trump will remain in the presidency until we dislodge him. No matter how many millions of citizens want him gone, the means of achieving this goal before 2020 are narrow and few, and most depend on the inclination of other major government officials. In this review of the options, I conclude that Donald Trump is unlikely to be removed from office until his opponents become better organized and gain control of both the House and Senate.
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1. Impeaching the president
Whether or not there are grounds for impeaching President Trump, impeachment depends on Congress’s will. As the US House website puts it: “The Constitution gives the House of Representatives the sole power to impeach an official, and it makes the Senate the sole court for impeachment trials.” Whereas initially I imagined that an anti-Trump coalition might emerge among Capitol Hill Republicans, that hope has died. A few Republican senators have criticized the president, but their opposition remains personal, episodic, isolated. Recent events show that Republicans have decided to collaborate with Trump rather than try to get rid of him. Were Congress composed differently, it would be another story. For now, though, Democratic efforts to have Trump impeached or censured are pointless, for the simple reason that Democrats are in the minority.
2. The special prosecutor
Will the investigations of special prosecutor Robert Mueller—the so-called “Russia probe”—yield information sufficient to remove Trump from office? If Trump were himself a tool of the Russian government, I believe he would have persisted in trying to fire Mueller or constrain the investigation.* Trump has (reluctantly) foregone this route, even though his inaction leaves open the possibility that Mueller will eventually press criminal charges against Trump’s children.
Information already made public shows how aggressively agents of the Russian government pursued contacts with members of Trump’s inner circle, testing how many ways they could succeed in corrupting and compromising Trump’s relatives, associates, and administration, and, with them, the American political system. While the Russians have reason to be satisfied with the success of their audacious experiment, the evidence so far available to the public falls short of establishing that Trump was personally involved.
Were Mueller to bring out evidence that Trump colluded with or was compromised by the Russians, what would happen? Such evidence could compel the House to impeach, but, as long as Trump is a sitting president, he is largely immune from being charged with a crime. According to Cass Sunstein, writing in Bloomberg News, a sitting president can only be charged with crimes committed prior to taking his office or unrelated to his presidential role. In the unlikely event of Trump’s being impeached and convicted, only after being removed from office would he face trial for criminal wrongdoing. And never has a special prosecution produced such spectacular results.
Impeachment is a serious drag on a presidency, but it’s a clumsy tool, in that Congress has never come to the point of kicking a president out. In the case of Watergate, Nixon preempted the process by resigning when the threat of impeachment loomed. Kenneth Starr’s lengthy special investigation prompted Bill Clinton’s impeachment, but ultimately the Senate acquitted Clinton, leaving him to serve out his second term. Because impeachment is a political but not a criminal proceeding, its outcome is highly discretionary and dependent on political factors. The only other president to be impeached was Andrew Johnson back in 1868; the Senate acquitted him, too.
3. The 25th Amendment
The 25th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1967, allows the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet to declare a president unable to perform his duties, whereupon the vice president shall assume the president’s role. Dissatisfaction with Trump has led to increased discussion of the 25th Amendment, as if it were designed to remedy a president’s poor judgment or incompetence. Michael Wolff, in promoting his sensational new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, has encouraged this misconception by claiming that the 25th Amendment is under discussion in the West Wing “all the time.” A quick read of the amendment establishes that it applies only to fairly extreme conditions of physical incapacity, for it allows the President to reverse its effects by notifying leaders of Congress that he is again able to discharge his duties. Last week, the president’s first official physical exam concluded with Dr. Ronny L. Johnson, the physician in charge, proclaiming the 71-year-old Trump to be in “excellent health.” So wake up, America: unless the President is physically incapacitated, the 25th Amendment won’t be invoked.
4. Shaming the president
The president’s extraordinary behavior following the publication of Wolff’s blistering expose shows his sensitivity to embarrassment of a certain kind. Yes, Trump has a tough skin, but he hates it when people he respects, whose approval he craves, look down on him. He hates being confronted with evidence that he is anathema to others who are powerful and celebrated. Trump looks down on reporters and many of his political rivals, but he is sensitive to criticism that leaves him feeling one-down. Leading activists have yet to zero in on what symbols can be used to dog Trump and effectively heighten his sense of shame. Protests against Trump should be orchestrated around the goal of making the president miserable. Could a strategy of social shaming drive him from office? It might, if it eats away at his sense of self and robs him of the pleasure he derives from his job. Nixon resigned from office mainly because he had been disgraced. The stigma was a punishment that never went away.
5. Winning back Congressional majorities in 2018
The uncertainty of these options suggests how important it is that Trump’s opponents direct their all toward ousting Trump’s Republican collaborators from the US House and Senate. The GOP is in a weak and troubled condition, and Republicans in Congress, still loyal to their party, have concluded with good reason that if they do not collaborate with the mercurial Trump, their party will fail. Their numerical supremacy can’t palliate the ideological fissures and Faustian compromises eroding their party’s integrity. As Democrats lay plans to defeat incumbent Republicans in November, they should remember the millions of moderate Republicans and independents who are looking for a new reason to go to the polls. Whereas a tilt to the left will not strengthen the Democrats’ alarmingly weak share of political power, with a fresh, moderate ideology, the party could attract thousands of new voters and prevail.
Image: The map by SpeedMcCool from Wikimedia Commons
shows party leanings by congressional district,
using Cook Partisan Voting Index scores for the (current) 115th Congress.
* This sentence, the subject of discussion in the comments section, has been modified from its original version.