Darryl Paulson: Will Donald Trump be dumped? Part II — The Constitutional debate

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In my recent op-ed, I examined the possibility of removing President Donald Trump through the 25th Amendment. That amendment allows for the president to be removed if the vice president and a majority of the cabinet find the president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.”

This option is highly unlikely to succeed.

Impeachment is the more likely problem confronting Trump, although the chances of success are minimal at this time.

Impeachment and the Constitutional Convention.

On July 20, 1787, delegates at the Constitutional Convention raised the issue of impeachment of a sitting president. The debate was heated.

Charles Pinckney of South Carolina moved to strike impeachment from the Constitution. Pinckney contended that elections would hold the president accountable.

George Mason of Virginia asked, “Shall any man be above Justice?” Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania moved that the impeachable offenses be enumerated and defined.

James Madison of Virginia listed possible impeachable offenses. “He might lose his capacity after his appointment. He might pervert his administration into a scheme of peculation or oppression. He might betray his trust to foreign powers.” Many Trump critics see him guilty of the last charge.

Pinckney and Rufus King of Massachusetts worried that impeachment would jeopardize the independence of the president. Eldridge Gerry of Massachusetts countered that “A good magistrate will not fear them (Congress). A bad one ought to be kept in fear of them.”

The delegates at the Constitutional Convention gave the House the authority to bring articles of impeachment by majority vote. Impeachment, in contrast to the public perception, does not mean removal from office. It only means a majority of the House believes there are grounds for the Senate to hold hearings on whether or not to remove the president from office. General offenses included treason, bribery and other high crimes and misdemeanors.

Presidential Impeachments.

Andrew Johnson, a Democrat who assumed the presidency after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was bitterly distrusted by the Radical Republicans who dominated Congress. Johnson, a Tennessean, was viewed as too sympathetic to the South.

Johnson’s problems escalated after Congress passed the Tenure of Office Act in 1867, which required the president to get Senate approval before firing a cabinet officer. Johnson fired Secretary of War Edwin Stanton without seeking Senate approval.

The House voted to impeach Johnson. After a three-month trial in the Senate, the Senate fell one vote short of the necessary two-thirds needed to remove the president. The vote was 35 to 19 in favor of removing Johnson, and seven Republicans voted to acquit.

Over a century later, President Richard Nixon, who won a landslide victory over Democrat George McGovern in 1972, fell victim to the Watergate scandal. The scandal involved the effort of members of the president’s re-election team to break into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex.

Although Nixon denied any knowledge of the break-in, it later became known that the president had tapes of all the conversations in the Oval Office. The House brought articles of impeachment against the president and the primary charge was obstructing justice.

During hearings by the Senate Watergate Committee, a number of Nixon aides gave damning testimony about the president’s involvement. After nine months, President Nixon became the first president to resign rather than face removal by the Senate. On Aug. 9, 1974, Nixon wrote that “I hereby resign the office of President of the United States.”

During the Bill Clinton administration, an investigation into Arkansas land dealings by the Clintons while he was governor, ultimately led to his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

During the Senate hearings on whether to remove the president, his attorneys argued that Clinton was the victim of a partisan attempt to remove him from office for having consensual sex with Lewinsky. However abhorrent his personal conduct, the issue was not an impeachable offense.

The public agreed and attacked Republicans for wasting time and money on trying to remove the president. Clinton is the only president to face impeachment and see his personal popularity rise. His approval rating climbed to over 70 percent, and the Senate fell far short of the two-thirds vote necessary to remove him from office.

Part III Forthcoming:  Will Trump be Dumped? Impeachment

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Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg specializing in Florida Politics and elections.

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