On Wednesday, a Democratic Congressman filed articles of impeachment against President Trump. The move comes in the midst of an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election that has already led to the resignation of the president's original national security adviser, the former FBI director testifying against the president, and a special prosecutor being appointed. It also comes days after the revelation that the president's son met with Russian lobbyists who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton.
Obviously, just drafting the papers isn't enough to evict Trump from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In fact, if recent history is any guide, in just a few years Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) will be running ads about how he worked together with Trump — that's what Darell Issa (R-CA), a Republican who once called for President Obama's impeachment, did in 2016. But it is a sign that the conversation about what removes a president from office has moved out of the realm of pure hypotheticals.
So, hypothetically, how would impeachment work? What takes us from a San Fernando Valley resident saying Trump should be removed to a helicopter flying Trump back to Mar-a-Lago for the last time? It's a process that's been attempted twice without ever successfully removing a president, but here are the steps.
As Rep. Sherman proved, any member of the House of Representatives is allowed to introduce Articles of Impeachment. There is no specific guideline for what warrants impeachment, besides what is outlined in the Constitution: "The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors." The Constitution has no further explanation for what "high crimes and misdemeanors" refers to and it is therefore up to members of Congress to determine that themselves, as Rep. Sherman clearly has, specifically pointing to obstruction of justice in President Trump's interactions with and later firing of, FBI Director James Comey.
The slipperiness of the legal definition here highlights an important point about impeachment — it is a political act, not a legal one. There is no objective legal standard that warrants impeachment, nor is there an objective standard of what would be overreach. Back in May, shortly after Trump fired Comey, I spoke with some political scientists about what standard leads to impeachment, and they all agreed that, more than any specific action, a president's impeachment is caused by them losing political support. Members of the political system with the power to impeach realize they're better off without the president in power, so they get rid of him.
If Articles of Impeachment, like Rep. Sherman's gain support in the House, they require a simple majority to move forward. With 240 Republicans to 194 Democrats in the House, and 218 votes needed for a majority, this would require a significant amount of Republicans to join with Democrats like Sherman in seeking Trump's impeachment. There is some movement among Republicans in the House, but not nearly enough to get the ball rolling.
If the House votes to impeach, the president is then put on trial in the Senate, with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding as judge over the proceedings. It's a weird kind of trial — the senators who are supposed to be the jury are also moonlighting as prosecution and defense by virtue of being in the president's party or the opposition. And it requires two-thirds of Senators to agree, an even higher bar than the House. While the margin of Republicans to Democrats (with two independents joining them) is a much closer 52-48, requiring 67 votes for impeachment again requires a significant portion of Republicans to join in.
It's little surprise that in the country's 241-year history, there has never been a successful removal of a president from office through impeachment. Congress tried with Andrew Johnson, and although Articles of Impeachment passed the House, the Senate couldn't muster up the necessary two-thirds majority. The same thing happened to Bill Clinton — the House voted to impeach, but the Senate didn't remove him from office. In the one case where a president did leave office, Richard Nixon in 1973, he chose to resign instead of letting Congress kick him out, after Republican allies told him privately they could no longer defend him.
So, in looking at a potential impeachment of President Trump, it remains incredibly important, more than the specifics of what Trump has done, to pay attention to how much support he retains from Republican voters and Republicans in Congress. Though Republicans in Congress have expressed dismay at many of his actions, they remain far from dropping him. And for the most fired-up elements of the Republican base, impeachment by Trump's fellow Republicans could seem like betrayal. Shoes keep dropping, but until those shoes start to push down Trump's approval among his remaining fans, impeachment is still a long way off.