With the Russian collusion probe growing daily, along with concerns about President Trump’s mental fitness, political observers talk about two ways the Constitution allows him to be removed from office: Impeachment for criminal acts, or removal via the 25th Amendment because of grave disability. Both are viewed as long shots, because they begin with a high burden of proof. Trump popping off on Twitter about North Korea and nukes is disturbing, but not an impeachable offense.
Or maybe it is.
Trump could be removed from office simply because he’s abnormal — and there’s precedent for it, writes Gene Healy of the Cato Institute. “Impeachment’s structure, purpose, and history suggest a remedy broad enough to protect the body politic from federal officers whose lack of stability and competence might cause serious harm,” he says. “Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there’s no constitutional barrier to impeaching a president whose public conduct makes reasonable people worry about his access to nuclear weapons.”
Most Americans’ idea of impeachment was shaped by Watergate, when Richard Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment over criminal activity. But it was the Watergate-era Senate Judiciary Committee that defined three categories of impeachable offenses, which go far beyond that: “abuse of power, using one’s post for ‘personal gain,’ and ‘behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office.’” The House can impeach, and the Senate confirm the removal of, a federal officer whose conduct “seriously undermine[s] public confidence in his ability to perform his official functions.”
Is there a precedent for this type of Trump impeachment?
Healy points to the 1868 impeachment of Andrew Johnson, who was accused of misdeeds very similar to Trump’s:
The 10th article of impeachment against Johnson charged the president with “a high misdemeanor in office” based on a series of “intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” he’d delivered in an 1866 speaking tour. Those speeches, according to Article X, were “peculiarly indecent and becoming in the Chief Magistrate” and brought his office “into contempt, ridicule, and disgrace.” Johnson … accused Congress of, among other things, “undertak[ing] to poison the minds of the American people” and having “substantially planned” a race riot in New Orleans that July.
“Johnson’s behavior was, you might say, ‘not normal,’ and what is ‘not normal’ can sometimes be impeachable,” says Healy. “Through all the chatter about Emoluments and Russian plots, ‘not normal’ is at the heart of the fears evoked by the Trump presidency. That recurring lament, heard even from Republican Senators, often involves the president’s Twitter feed, his outlet for tantrums about bad restaurant reviews, ‘Saturday Night Live’ skits, ‘so-called judges’ who should be blamed for future terrorist attacks, and the United States’ nuclear-armed rivals.”
Where do we stand on a potential Trump impeachment?
It’s largely because of Twitter, and Trump’s poor judgment on and off the social platform, that cracks are appearing in the Republican firewall around Trump. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) gave an interview to the New York Times last week that some are calling “an inflection point” in Republican support of the president — he claimed Trump is leading us “on the path to World War III.”
In the meantime, Democrats are proceeding traditionally. On Wednesday, Rep. Al Green (D-TX) read articles of impeachment on the House floor, citing Trump’s history of racist behavior and false statements such as his assertion that millions had voted illegally and former President Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower. A president need not be convicted of a criminal offense to be impeached, he said.
But Green backed down from forcing a vote, subdued by Democratic lawmakers who want to see how special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe into the Trump campaign pans out.