Now that Democrats have taken control of the U.S. House of Representatives, could Donald Trump be removed from office by impeachment?
While a recent poll found that nearly half of Americans polled think Congress should begin impeachment proceedings that could lead to Trump being removed from office, Joshua Matz, a constitutional lawyer and co-author of the new book To End a Presidency: The Power of Impeachment, tells PEOPLE it is a serious process that “would be extraordinarily traumatic and disruptive for the nation as a whole.”
As most Democratic leaders have stayed away from impeachment talk, a small group of House Democrats have already called for it, citing allegations that Trump has obstructed justice, undermined the federal judiciary and been violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution due to his refusal to divest from his businesses.
Americans increasingly support impeaching Trump. A CNN-SSRS poll from September shows that 47 percent of Americans polled believe that Trump “should be impeached and removed from office,” up from 42 percent over the summer.
When broken down by political party, 78 percent of Democrats believe Trump should be impeached immediately. And Democratic billionaire donor Tom Steyer has mounted a sustained campaign for it, recently saying on Twitter that Trump needs to be impeached to end “lawlessness” after Steyer became one of multiple high-profile Democrats who were targeted with suspicious packages last month.
Yet impeachment is a seemingly impossible feat. No president has been removed from office this way, despite impeachment proceedings that began against presidents Bill Clinton, Richard Nixon and Andrew Johnson.
First, a majority of the House of Representatives must approve at least one formal charge — called an article of impeachment. The Constitution says that a president can be impeached and removed from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Then, following a trial in the Senate, two-thirds of the Senate (or 67 senators), must vote to convict the president on these charges — a vote that would require Republican cooperation.
Matz, who wrote his book on impeachment with Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, explained to PEOPLE that while they believe there is a need for more oversight of Trump, “reasoned judgment” is needed before proceeding with impeachment.
“The idea that the Democrats could come into the House and approve articles of impeachment against the president the next day is pure fantasy,” he says, “and would be an extraordinarily imprudent use of their power.”
What will happen to Trump now that Democrats have taken control of the House?
“It’s very clear there is a need for investigation and oversight that has been lacking under Republican control in Congress. It’s by no means obvious that the Democrats would or should or could end President Trump’s term in office through impeachment power. There remains a need for additional fact-finding and deliberation before any reasoned judgement could be made as to the propriety of impeachment.
“Their first step should be to legislate, and to investigate, and to engage in oversight,” Matz continues. “If, in the course of their investigations, sufficient evidence comes to light to credibly justify articles of impeachment, it would be appropriate for the House at that point to convene a committee to assess that question at greater length.”
Why shouldn’t impeachment talk be taken lightly?
“In recent years, there has been a certain casual attitude towards impeachment in American public discourse, casual references to ‘hashtag impeachment’ litter social media and increasingly people view impeachment as the first resort, not the last resort to allegations of presidential wrongdoing.”
What high crimes and misdemeanors has Trump allegedly committed?
“Some have suggested that the president could be impeached for literally dozens of different alleged offenses. That is not the case. There appear to be very serious questions about his involvement in impropriety leading to the presidential election, his entanglement — political and financial — with foreign powers, and his abuse of the pardon power and other presidential powers to obstruct justice. (Trump has denied any wrongdoing) Those are the most serious allegations against him, but they are also allegations as to which we lack sufficient evidence to reach firm conclusions.
“What is needed now is investigation and oversight, not a partisan rush to judgement,” Matz adds. “That is particularly true given that Special Counsel (Robert) Mueller has not yet rendered conclusions on a vast majority of key questions.”