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The Politics of Presidential Removal

constitution-preamble-quill-penUniversity of Pittsburgh political scientist, Aníbal Pérez-Liñán has a piece worth reading at The Monkey Cage:  How would removing Trump from office affect U.S. democracy?  The piece is based on comparative research on interruptions of presidential terms.

How would removing Trump from office affect U.S. democracy? Would it be an exemplary act of accountability — or a thinly veiled coup against an elected leader? Would it prevent major damage to the republic — or push the country into political instability?

Political science research and other nations’ experiences suggest that, without a careful process backed by a broad national consensus, removing the president would only worsen the country’s polarization.

One of the reasons I think impeachment is unlikely (and a 25th Amendment removal even more so) is that it would require a large amount of consensus to achieve, and the current state of our party politics suggests that a consensus of that magnitude is largely impossible.  Impeachment and removal would require a 2/3rds vote in the Senate.  This is a steep hurdle in normal times, and an almost impossible one in the current climate.

We had an illustration of this just this week when GOP candidate for the House, Greg Gianforte, attacked a reporter, and won the election (and was even praised in some quarters).  It should be noted that between half and two-thirds of votes had already been cast prior to the incident, so it is hard to gauge the exact role public sentiment about the event played in the outcome.  Still, it is disquieting that he still won, as a lot of people had to vote for him knowing what he had done.  The point here being that partisan identity is not so easy to shed and counting on a lot of Republicans turning on Trump in a way that would allow for impeachment is a tall order.  That which we currently know about the administration, bizarre and troubling as it is, is nowhere near enough.

Returning to the piece, Pérez-Liñán notes that for impeachment to be effective in the context of democratic health and accountability, it has to adhere to two conditions:  proper process and social consensus.

He notes the following in regards to process:

Impeachment is a hybrid institution, in part legal trial and in part vote of no-confidence. Presidential constitutions require that legislators produce evidence of high crimes or maladministration to impeach the president (with a trial decided by the senate or by the supreme court, depending on the country). But the decision to impeach is ultimately driven by partisan politics. During a crisis, political passions can overcome attention to constitutional niceties. If a legislature uses shortcuts to remove a president, that can have nefarious consequences for democracy.

And in regards to social consensus:

If a nation is politically polarized, therefore, rushed calls for impeachment may not be a great idea. The president’s supporters easily dismiss evidence of corruption or abuse of power as media manipulation. Without real consensus, much of the population will see the ouster of an elected executive as an illegitimate act.

Again: assuming the GOP remains in control of the House, the threshold for impeachment remains high and it would still be pretty high if the Democrats manage to win the chamber in 2018.  The threshold in the Senate is enormous, which is really an institutional manifestation of both of Pérez-Liñán’s dimensions.  It takes an involved process to bring an impeachment, and it takes broad consensus to have a trial in the Senate, along with more procedural barriers.  Indeed, while I tend not to be a fan of large magnitude super-majorities, I very much think that for removal the 2/3rds requirement makes a substantial amount of sense, insofar as the removal of an elected chief executive should require substantial, broad-based political buy-in.

In regards to the 25th Amendment–that is a dangerous route in my mind unless there is truly overwhelming evidence of its necessity.  And that would be difficult to muster and would require substantial action on the part of the president’s inner circle (something which seems unlikely).

I recognize that conditions can change, and may very well change, but they will have to change a lot for some kind of removal to take place. Indeed, while I think Trump is unqualified for the presidency (save in the barest of constitutional ways, i.e., a citizen of the correct age), I do not think that there is a enough to actually justify impeaching and removing him at the moment.  Such an action has to require a very high bar, and incompetence isn’t actually a high crime nor a misdemeanor.  In fact, part of the whole point of the discussion in this post and the linked article is that presidential interruptions can lead to long term damage beyond just the actions of the president who is removed.  Removing a president for anything other than very serious offenses (not just suspicions of very serious offenses) can create a very troublesome precedent.

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About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    In regards to the 25th Amendment–that is a dangerous route in my mind unless there is truly overwhelming evidence of its necessity. And that would be difficult to muster and would require substantial action on the part of the president’s inner circle (something which seems unlikely).

    The 25th can only be sustained over the President’s objection with a vote of 2/3rd of both houses (per section 4). If you’re capable of doing that, you can easily just impeach him, so it’s not clear when the 25th amendment would ever be used on a president who’s not in a coma or something which prevents him from objecting.

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  2. al-Ameda says:

    In regards to the 25th Amendment–that is a dangerous route in my mind unless there is truly overwhelming evidence of its necessity. And that would be difficult to muster and would require substantial action on the part of the president’s inner circle (something which seems unlikely).

    Use of the 25th Amendment, in the absence of a legitimate medical diagnosis, to take Trump down would be viewed by half the country as a coup.

    “Regular” impeachment will have to come from Republicans, it will have to be their show, because short of a sea change vote in the 2018 elections, the votes are not there for Democrats to make it happen.

    Personally, good government concerns aside, I am definitely not excited about the prospect of a President Mike Pence quietly jamming the radical Republican agenda through. I think I prefer a besieged and scatter-brained Donald Trump, who is an impediment to congressional Republicans, to a drama-free reactionary Mike Pence.

    It’s possible that the impeachment of Trump could become a real possibility, if so, I’d expect Trump to do a ‘Nixon’ and resign in advance of congressional proceedings.

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  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    In theory, the process for invoking the 25th Amendment are meant to operate faster than it would take to impeach a President.

    In any case, the Amendment was intended to be used in cases where the President is incapacitated either physically or mentally and unable to carry out the functions of his office. For example, if a President suffered a stroke and was unable to communicate or function and there was no prospect of recovery. Additionally, it is meant to cover situations where a President may be debilitated for an extended period of time. Neither of these are appropriate grounds for impeachment, nor should they be. This is why the Amendment was deemed necessary, especially in the modern age where even a day or two when someone is unable to exercise Presidential authority would be an extreme national security risk. That’s why the drafters of the Amendment provided for a relatively easy way for a Vice-President — who can’t simply act as President because the President is disabled — to serve as Acting President until he recovers. If that doesn’t happen, then the VIce-President would continue to serve for as long as the then current term of the President would last ,and would have to run for re-election if he wanted to continue in office.

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  4. Lit3Bolt says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    It should be noted that there have been previous instances of a President being disabled…Wilson and Reagan most obviously come to mind…and nothing was done.

    Garfield was shot and clung to life for 4 months, and was also not declared “disabled.”

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  5. Mr. Bluster says:

    Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787
    by James Madison

    Saturday, June 2

    Mr. MASON. Some mode of displacing an unfit magistrate is rendered indispensable by the fallibility of those who choose, as well as by the corruptibility of the man chosen.

    Read More

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  6. @Lit3Bolt:

    There was no 25th Amendment when Garfield and Wilson were President.

    As for Reagan, the Amendment was invoked, albeit Section three not Section four, when Reagan underwent surgery for benign polyps on his colon. George H.W. Bush was Acting President for several hours until Reagan was out from under anesthesia. The same thing happened during the second term of George W. Bush when Bush needed to be under general anesthesia for a minor medical procedure.

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  7. Andre Kenji says:

    I would say that Aníbal Pérez-Liñán is understating the problems of impeachment in Latin America, that are even worse than he writes in this article.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  8. Mr. Prosser says:

    @al-Ameda: “… because short of a sea change vote in the 2018 elections…” Even with a retaking of House or Senate I think the Democrats should make the Republicans do all the work of impeachment. Taking out Trump even with what looks like a clear mandate for Democratic action is going to rip the country.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  9. al-Ameda says:

    @Mr. Prosser:

    Even with a retaking of House or Senate I think the Democrats should make the Republicans do all the work of impeachment. Taking out Trump even with what looks like a clear mandate for Democratic action is going to rip the country.

    I generally agree with you on this, specifically with regard to forcing the impeachment to be a Republican operation.

    As to ripping the country? I think we’re already ripped apart, however, it can always get worse.

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  10. Kari Q says:

    If a nation is politically polarized, therefore, rushed calls for impeachment may not be a great idea. The president’s supporters easily dismiss evidence of corruption or abuse of power as media manipulation. Without real consensus, much of the population will see the ouster of an elected executive as an illegitimate act.

    It is unfortunate that Republicans were not aware of this when Clinton was impeached. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation (and while I’m not a fan of Bill Clinton I did think that the impeachment was driven by animus rather than legal considerations) it certainly contributed to partisans hostility.

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  11. MBunge says:

    We’ve already crossed an important threshold. There is no evidence that Trump has committed anything even close to an impeachable offense and while he may be incompetent, there’s no indication he is incapable of fulfilling his Presidential duties. To even be discussing his removal by such means is dangerous. Not because anything is going to happen immediately but because of how it pushes that Overton Window.

    Mike

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  12. MBunge says:

    @Kari Q: It is unfortunate that Republicans were not aware of this when Clinton was impeached.

    Bill Clinton was caught doing something that up to that point had been almost universally accepted as a career ender for politicians. He then lied about it and engaged in a cover up that included virtually going to war against a legally appointed independent counsel. At almost every single point in the process, Bill Clinton essentially dared the GOP to impeach him. And the Democratic Party and the liberal movement blindly supported him every step of the way.

    That mess played a big part in getting us to where we are now, but not in the way you think.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 13

  13. Kari Q says:

    @MBunge:

    Even if you’re right in every particular (and I don’t think you are, even though I do not like Bill Clinton and am not defending what he did) the GOP acted without achieving a national consensus that the president should be removed from office, thus exacerbating partisanship.

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  14. Matt says:

    @MBunge:

    Bill Clinton was caught doing something that up to that point had been almost universally accepted as a career ender for politicians.

    What are you smoking these days?

    The list of presidents getting some on the side is quite substantial (at least 1/3rd of all presidents). Thomas Jefferson being the first case of a president cheating on his wife. JFK was probably the most obvious as he was quite the whore but his extramarital affairs were tolerated unlike Clinton.

    Gingrich was cheating on his second wife with his future third wife while leading the investigation of Clinton. Gingrich of course wasn’t the only Republican who was later busted for such things.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  15. Kari Q says:

    @MBunge:

    You seem to believe it was only liberals and partisan Democrats who opposed the impeachment of Bill Clinton. This is just wrong. There were many people like myself who didn’t like or vote for Clinton who still opposed the impeachment, even while we knew he had done what he was accused of.

    In this poll, 79% thought he was guilty of perjury, but only 32% believed he should be removed from office.

    This poll found the same thing: https://mobile.nytimes.com/1998/12/21/us/impeachment-polls-public-support-for-president-for-closure-emerges-unshaken.html

    The national consensus was that the impeachment of Clinton was improper and he should complete his term in office. The GOP ignored that. The result was that Democrats assumed that Republicans would never accept the legitimacy of any Democratic president, no matter how popular or how large their electoral victory, while Republicans assumed, as you do, that Democrats will blindly stand by their own. Partisan hostility increased, and our country has suffered the consequences.

    Democrats would do well to learn the lesson and proceed cautiously.

    Honestly, I am in despair about the country. I see people who I thought were intelligent and reality based who were arguing that the electoral college should not confirm the election results. They don’t seem to realize that, however bad this administration is, the electoral college overthrowing the results would be far worse. I see Republicans embracing and defending actions I never thought any American elected official would regard as less than abhorrent. I see no signs of hope. I’m left to hoping that the man has a heart attack, and I don’t recall ever wishing anyone ill before.

    Of course, even if he does fail to finish his term because of health problems, we haven’t really found a solution to the forces that brought us here.

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  16. Andre Kenji says:

    Impeachment is a highly political and partisan process that should be a last resort – Dilma Roussef had his own vice-president openly conspiring with Congress to remove her from office. The Hugo Chavez Regime became the s*show that it is today after a failed coup attempt in 2002. I remember that writers in the Wall Street Journal praising the removal of the elected President of Honduras, now the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere.

    Wall Street and the American Media have the strange tendency of supporting the removal of elected leaders in Latin America when they are promised “reforms”, so, the coverage about these impeachments always understate the problems coming from that.

    Trump may have committed a lot of impeachable offenses. But impeachment should be a last resort. There is a midterm election coming next year. Elections *should* have consequences.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  17. Barry says:

    @MBunge: “We’ve already crossed an important threshold. There is no evidence that Trump has committed anything even close to an impeachable offense and while he may be incompetent, there’s no indication he is incapable of fulfilling his Presidential duties. To even be discussing his removal by such means is dangerous. Not because anything is going to happen immediately but because of how it pushes that Overton Window.”

    Again, sentiments not in evidence on your side when you impeached Clinton.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  18. Barry says:

    @MBunge: “Bill Clinton was caught doing something that up to that point had been almost universally accepted as a career ender for politicians. ”

    Lie.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  19. @Andre Kenji: The situation in Brazil, both the recent past and the potential near-term future are all very troubling.

    And the Venezuela example, as well as Honduras, are good examples, although of extra-legal actions.

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  20. teve tory says:

    @Barry: Yeah, if you’re a republican it’s pretty easy to Hike the Appalachian Trail and get away with it.

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  21. teve tory says:

    Trump’s a liar, and a demagogue, and dangerously stupid, and admitted to obstruction of justice, and is obviously personally profiting from his position, but the GOP would have to have principles in order to remove him, and they don’t. A horde of MBunges, Jacks and the like isn’t going to suddenly have a deep crisis of conscience which makes them recommit to civic virtue.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  22. Pch101 says:

    @Kari Q:

    Bunge suffers from a severe case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome. Without a straitjacket and a bucketload of meds, you aren’t going to reach him.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  23. Andre Kenji says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: In Venezuela there was a coup attempt using the military. In Honduras they used maneuvers with dubious legality. But they mechanics is pretty similar.

    In Brazil Michel Temer was recorded admitting taking bribes and a former Presidential Candidate(That was one of the leaders of the impeachment against Dilma) was recorded talking about killing his cousin.

    But to me the most interesting thing is the reaction North of the Rio Grande. For example, there is that:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124623220955866301

    American media and the investors in Wall Street always had rosy reactions to the removal of elected leaders in Latin America, they are not willing to admit that they were wrong, so, the American Public has no idea about how dangerous the removal of elected Heads of State can be. That 60 Minutes segment about the operation that was used to impeach Dilma is pretty illustrative of how the US media can be pretty gullible about these things.

    Elections should have consequences. Trump can and should be defeated in the ballot box.

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  24. Mr. Bluster says:

    …the American Public has no idea about how dangerous the removal of elected Heads of State can be.

    When the Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States resigned in disgrace on August 9th, 1974, not one member of those armed forces followed him in support.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1