If you have read from this blog before, you know that I write about U.S. political affairs often, not because I necessarily want to, but because the spectacle that is the current U. S. administration fairly cries out for attention. And I, as many other Americans, keep on looking on with the horror akin to witnessing a train wreck. As the carnage mounts, I recall having predicted in this space, on Election Day Eve, 2016, that Donald Trump will serve at most one four-year term, and likely not that much. Today, I stand by that prediction as much as ever. In this post, I will comment on some of what reinforces my initial thought. A follow-up post in a day or two will lay out why I think Trump’s removal from office would not end the crisis; it might, in fact, make it worse.
A president’s term in office may come to a premature end in three Constitutional ways: his own death, impeachment and removal by congress, and resignation. In my own lifetime, unbelievable as it is, I have seen one president die in office (Kennedy); one be impeached though not removed from office (Clinton), and one who watched an inexorable march begin toward impeachment and resigned from office before it could come to fruition (Nixon). From 1789 to 1998, only one President (Andrew Johnson) was impeached and was not removed from office. Impeachment was, is, and was meant to be, a serious thing, not lightly undertaken by any present or future Congress. A President’s removal by impeachment is extremely difficult, requiring the votes of two-thirds of the Senate. It is difficult to imagine two-thirds of the current Senate agreeing to anything, since the two parties view nearly everything in terms of their own re-election.
Edit: A good friend from my days with State reminded me that there is another way a president may be removed from office–via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which deals with the inability of the President to carry out his duties. It is complex and allows the Vice President to assume the duties of the President as the “Acting President.” This would be a can of worms on a scale never before seen, (if it became more than some brief period) but is also an interesting possibility as a way of taking power from the Donald should his mental state at some point be adjudged as not up to the challenge. End note. Thanks, Dave!
In the case of Trump, there is plentiful speculation as to his eventual impeachment. Much of it has solid legal grounding, but he will not be impeached unless, by a curious convergence of events, Democrats, either with the help of some disgusted Republicans, or with a newly-elected majority in the House of Representatives after the 2018 elections, manage to get Articles of Impeachment through the House. Republican Senators would have to be haunted by the prospect of their own electoral underperformance to a degree that they decide to attempt to influence Trump to resign and disappear from the public eye. Given Trump’s egotistical and narcissistic tendencies, his agreement would be hard to envision. But I could easily see a long series of delaying tactics by the Senate (Mitch McConnell could drag this out for a long, long time…) with the endgame of having some more conventional Republican challenge Trump in the Primaries for the 2020 campaign. One can only imagine the turmoil of a weakened Trump fighting the party who urged the electorate to accept and embrace him. Third-party bids? Maybe. At any rate, 2020 appears, at least so far, to have the potential for heavy-duty political turmoil.
We are in the midst of an odd political moment when impeachment is so unlikely as to be of negligible consideration. But wait–I mentioned above that the solid legal means for impeachment already exists, and I do believe it. The so-called “emoluments clause” of the Constitution is generally understood to prohibit the President to make money off the office above and beyond the salary to which he is entitled from that office. In brief, the argument that Trump is profiting off the office of President is based on a couple of facts: he has a long-term lease on a property in Washington, D. C., upon which one of Trump’s companies built a hotel (plastered, of course, with his name). The hotel is often occupied by persons with business before the government of the U. S. (and thus before Trump), and so such persons might think that they curry favor with the President by staying in the hotel or eating in its restaurant. Far-fetched? Not at all. A similar situation applies in the case of “Mar-a-Lago,” the resort property Trump owns and uses for his weekends. In a recent meeting Trump had with the Chinese president, can you imagine how much money flowed to the Trump property by numbers of Chinese government employees who stayed at the property? But never mind. He will never be called upon to defend himself from charges of “government for profit.”
Another facet of the “for personal gain” way of thinking is Trump’s refusal to put any of his considerable assets into any sort of trust. Several presidents have been wealthy men in their own right; it has been the normal procedure in these cases (until now) that the president transfer his assets into the care of a “trustee” who keeps the asset in a “blind” trust while the president is in office. Theoretically, at least, the president is kept from manipulating the interests of the people’s business in line with his own business’ interests. It has never been a perfect system for insulating one from the other, but Trump has essentially thumbed his nose at the whole concept by placing his assets in the control of relatives. This isolates him, he insists. It doesn’t, insist hordes of experts. Again. it really doesn’t matter. The Republican majority in Congress will never hold him to account.
And now, we see the spectacle of the President’s firing of the FBI director he lauded during the campaign for digging into his opponent’s e-mails. Now, six months post-election, he cited this treatment of Hillary Clinton as grounds for Comey’s removal. At least he did at first, though he later blithely admitted that he had decided to fire Comey before he asked his Attorney General, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III (who tasked the memo out to his Assistant Attorney General). to write a justification for the firing. Floating the airy statement that Comey “was not doing a good job,” he later said the ongoing probe by the FBI of Russian influencing of the 2016 election was part and parcel of the whole sordid episode. And if this investigation turns out to engulf more of the Trump organization and the Trump campaign, the phrase “obstruction of justice” will be on the lips of all official Washington. Impeachable offense? Yes. Will he he be called to account? Again, I doubt it.
So what if Trump, by some miracle, is impeached? Or suppose Trump tires of being questioned and just decides he’ rather sit on his gold-throne toilet in Manhattan? What happens? Mike Pence is what happens. And that is not an outcome to be desired. More in the next post.