New revelations about Donald Trump Jr.'s explicit desire to get information from the Russian government hurting Hillary Clinton in the midst of a covert campaign by Russian espionage to influence the 2016 election, including the hacking of Democratic party servers, has led to people wondering about whether it really is time to start talking about impeachment.
Rep. Brian Sherman (D-CA) has actually filed Articles of Impeachment against the president in the House of Representatives, but there is still a huge gap between that and Trump being removed from office. So it's worth asking, in the midst of all of this, whether impeachment is actually the best idea right now.
Impeachment is a huge thing to consider—it's only been attempted twice in American history, and both times led to the Senate voting not to remove the president from office. In one instance (President Richard Nixon, in 1974), the president resigned rather than being impeached, though the assumption was that impeachment and removal was coming if he did not leave.
Let's consider why it is that impeachment is so rare. Many presidents have done illegal things—courts ruled that Harry Truman's 1952 seizure and nationalization of the steel industry was unconstitutional, for instance, but the response of American politics was not to kick him out of office. Nor did we impeach Ronald Reagan for his government's willful lying to the American people in the Iran-Contra scandal. In American history, impeachment hasn't been used for just presidents who did something wrong. It is reserved for presidents whose continued occupation of the White House jeopardizes the continued functioning of the Constitution.
Elizabeth Drew, who reported in Washington for The New Yorker in the midst of Watergate and published Washington Journal: Reporting Watergate and Richard Nixon’s Downfall about the experience, wrote in February about what makes a scandal Watergate-level:
"At the heart of it, Watergate was a constitutional crisis—whether our form of constitutional government, of checks and balances, would survive. This may sound hyperdramatic now, but it was quite real at the time, and how it would end wasn’t nearly as clear then as it is in retrospect."
What Drew meant was that Nixon's removal from office was less about the actions Nixon had done, but the way that, through actions by Nixon including the Saturday Night Massacre—the firing of the Attorney General and several underlings when they refused to fire special Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox—it became clear that the president was refusing to allow checks on his own power.
A moment like that seemed to take shape when Trump fired FBI Director James Comey over the Russia investigation, which we now know for sure thanks to Donald Trump Jr.'s emails is serious and substantial. But Comey's firing led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, and bolstered Congressional investigations into Trump's actions, including a hearing where Comey testified against the president. While one can certainly make the case that Trump's firing of Comey was an abuse of the president's power, it has not stopped the president's power from being checked—it arguably only increased the oversight on him.
What happens before the time is ripe? Andrew McCarthy, a conservative columnist who wrote Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, wrote this week of his own belief that Trump's behavior is worthy of considering impeachment. But he also made clear, as he did when he called for Obama's impeachment, that a failed attempt at impeachment would be destructive for the political system:
I well understood that there was no prospect of impeaching President Obama. Indeed, I argued in the book that it would be not merely foolish but counterproductive to commence impeachment proceedings against a president as to whom there was no political prospect of removal from office. A failed impeachment effort would be like a license to mutilate. It would tell the president who escaped unscathed that he was invulnerable—it would actually encourage more misconduct.
"The moment will not be ripe until a critical mass of Republicans decide that whatever piece of evidence has just come out makes the case to remove the president undeniable," Paul Musgrave, an assistant professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Amherst, who had previously worked for the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, tells Bustle. "And if you act before then, you're just going to turn this even more into a partisan battle, and that means that those party lines are going to solidify. And guess what Democrats—you don't control anything."
Musgrave has argued before that the real problem with considering impeaching Trump is not a legal one but a political one—as long as a significant of Trump's supporters consider the act of impeachment to be the "witch hunt" Trump claims it to be, they will consider an impeachment illegitimate, and the breakdown in our political system will only get worse.
Indeed, throughout the series of scandals that have hit the president and swirled around his White House, support for President Trump has barely dropped since the firing of James Comey, when discussion of impeachment first became common, suggesting that his most ardent supporters either don't believe or don't care that Trump may be engaged in abuse of presidential powers.
For America to break the emergency glass and do something unprecedented, it would require more agreement that Trump needs to be removed than the 55 percent of Americans that disapprove of his actions as president. And in a way, that shouldn't be surprising—46.1 percent of US voters chose Trump to be president, and for the country to really move on from Trump, it would require those voters to change their mind.
It looks like, for the time being, the way to curtail Trump's power isn't by resorting to extreme measures. Most likely, Trump will be brought down the old-way—at the ballot box. November of 2018 is just a little more than a year away.