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Analysis
President Trump’s impeachment

President Trump’s impeachment

Getting rid of a popular upstart

by Brian Reading

Tue 16 Aug 2016

Opinion polls predict Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, will lose the American presidential election to Democrat Hillary Clinton. He could nonetheless win. If so, Congress may at some stage be tempted to impeach him. Democrats and the Republican top brass would be happy to see him sacked. Putative Vice President Mike Pence would succeed to the White House, much more to the liking of the barons of the US establishment.

The US constitution makes getting rid of presidents a political matter. The House of Representatives votes to impeach on misconduct grounds. The Senate conducts a trial and a two-thirds majority is required for a guilty verdict. In reality it is a vote of no confidence rather than a legal issue.

Misconduct is ‘treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanours’, none of which are defined. The vague grounds for impeachment allow the House of Representatives to choose whatever excuse it likes. Moreover the supreme court (President Richard Nixon’s impeachment in 1974) has ruled that the judiciary cannot review a congressional decision.

Whatever the excuse, the Senate has the final word. The constitution did not include insanity, but ‘mad not bad’ is hardly a feasible grounds for dismissal if popular opinion continues to support President Trump. He has to do something really unpopular, which of course he might.

This would be only the fourth impeachment in US history and the first that is technically successful. Nixon jumped before being pushed. In 1868 Andrew Johnson was impeached for sacking his secretary of war, but the Senate vote was one short of a two-thirds majority. Bill Clinton’s sexual misdemeanours were trivial compared with many predecessors’, notably John Kennedy’s. Clinton’s impeachment also failed in the Senate.

Legislators face a dilemma when they oppose supporters’ wishes. In office they may claim to be representatives, deciding themselves what is in their voters’ best interests. If voters disagree, the legislators are soon out of office, nowhere more so than in the US. Popular opinion will determine whether Trump, if elected, stays or goes. You can only be anti-establishment while out of office. Once in government, the critic becomes the criticised.

For an impeachment to work, Trump would have to misbehave on a grand scale – and be seen to be doing the opposite of ‘making American great again’. As a trigger, revelations of pre-election wrongdoing can be ruled out. Trump’s past was fully dug over before the campaigns and still he won the Republication nomination. Yet his previous business connections and attitude towards President Vladimir Putin suggest potential for large-scale foreign policy error. As a deal-maker, he may not be up to handling possible Russian aggression.

Less grandiosely, British politics delivers up a similar conundrum. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, heading the official opposition to the conservative government, is a veteran hard-left politician apparently antithetical to Trump – but both are anti-establishment, with wide appeal to voters alienated by austerity, globalisation and inequality.

Corbyn’s promised cull of establishment sacred cows is not unlike Trump’s demands for protectionism and controls on immigration. Corbyn got the job last year with overwhelming support from the party rank and file but very little from Labour members of parliament, who have voted no confidence in him, forcing Corbyn to face a second leadership election on 24 September (which he will probably win).

The establishments in the US and UK face a problem seen in other democracies too – dispossessing themselves of troublesome yet popular upstarts regarded as upsetting accepted power structures. In the weeks before 8 November, much attention will be paid to getting Trump elected. If he wins, still more weight could be attached to the task of getting rid of him.

Brian Reading was an Economic Adviser to Prime Minister Edward Heath and is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This forms part of OMFIF’s series of commentaries on the US presidential election on 8 November.

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