Trump, Cohen and the dangers of impeachment

Michael Cohen’s admission of violating campaign finance laws on the instructions of then presidential candidate Donald Trump has placed talk of impeachment back at the centre of American political debate. On August 21 Mr Cohen, until 2018 President Trump’s lawyer, pleaded guilty to paying for the silence of two women about their alleged affairs with Donald Trump during the 2016 election. The questionable legality of the payment, and Mr Cohen’s claim that President Trump was aware of his crime, has become the basis of renewed calls for impeachment.

With both critics of President Trump such as conservative commentator Bret Stephens and supporters including Rudy Giuliani up in arms over the possibility of impeachment, it seems that what is needed is a dose of reality. First, because successful impeachment is almost certainly impossible at this point. Second, because if President Trump’s opponents attempted it they would be committing an appalling act of political self-harm.

Impeachment, the process whereby Congress brings charges against a government official, can be traced back to the founding of the United States’ political system at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Theoretically applicable to any government official, the fact that impeachment could be applied against even the President made it a controversial political process from the beginning and therefore one that was difficult to implement.

While the grounds for beginning impeachment proceedings- suspicion that the president is guilty of ‘treason, bribery or other high crimes or misdemeanours’ and a simple majority (50+%) vote in the House of Representatives- are relatively simple, successfully removing a president through impeachment is much more complicated. This is because once impeachment is approved by the House, the president must be put on trial by the Senate which can only remove him from office if two-thirds of its members deem him to be guilty. Even with a Democratic victory in November’s midterm elections for the House therefore, any attempts to remove Donald Trump are extremely likely to fail in the Republican-majority Senate.

This is the most practical objection to talk of impeachment, but it is accompanied by a second, political one.

Since 1787, there have been only three serious attempts at impeachment. Of these, one can be classed as legitimate, insofar as it reacted to a serious crime, and two as purely political attempts by the congressional majority to push out a president it did not approve of. The legitimate attempt at impeachment was that directed at Richard Nixon after the Watergate affair exposed his severe abuse of presidential power. In contrast to this stands the most recent purely political impeachment, that of Bill Clinton. Far from reacting to any significant crime, the latter was an attempt by Republicans in Congress to oust a president they disagreed with on the tenuous grounds that he lied about conducting an affair.

Although the investigation into President Trump’s connections with Russia spearheaded by Robert Mueller is rightly concerned about the possibility of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, the lack of evidence linking Donald Trump to the Russian government means that any attempt to impeach him would not be a legitimate impeachment comparable to Nixon’s. Rather, it would fit perfectly into the second category of an attempt by the president’s opponents to use relatively minor misdeeds as a pretext for removing him from office.

Given the failure of the Clinton impeachment, congressional Democrats should understand that you cannot impeach a president because he has had an extramarital affair. Certainly, impeachment could leave President Trump embattled and distracted from pursuing his often disastrous policies (much like how President Clinton’s impeachment distracted him from healthcare reform). Such thinking is counterproductive, however; Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 reflected the frustration of voters that self-serving elites in Washington were working against them, and any attempt by Washington elites to oust their democratically elected representative would only confirm this view.

Impeachment, therefore, is no panacea for President Trump’s opponents. It is not only doomed to fail, but also likely to confirm the worst fears of Donald Trump’s core supporters. His enemies would therefore do better to pay less attention to Michael Cohen’s confessions and more to the issues such as the disappearance of working-class jobs and competition from China that made the rise of Trump possible.


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