“The Constitution,” as special counsel Robert Mueller pointedly noted on Wednesday, “requires a process other than the criminal justice system to formally accuse a sitting President of wrongdoing.”
The alternative route is the impeachment process that is initiated by the US House of Representatives and completed by the US Senate. Impeachment, as Mueller reminds us, is separate and apart from the criminal-justice system. An impeached and convicted president is not jailed or fined. He simply reassumes the status he had before the previous election: that of a citizen who is not the president.
Ah, but there’s the rub. The politicians who are responsible for initiating the impeachment process get very concerned about the prospect that they might be accused of casually undoing the result of an election. This is a commendable concern, even in so stilted and stifled a democracy as that of the United States. But, in the case of Donald Trump, the concern is less consequential than his supporters, and many of his detractors, would have us believe.
Let’s grant for the time being that the most compelling of the general arguments against the impeachment of a sitting president is that congressional action to hold the commander in chief to account might upend the will of the people by undoing an election result. Political figures of differing partisanships and ideologies tend to agree on this point, which is one of the reasons we’ve see the argument amplified as the debate about whether to impeach Trump heats up. “Democrats,” gripes Trump campaign aide Kayleigh McEnany, have “never stopped trying to overturn the legitimate results of the 2016 election.”
Even House Judiciary Committee chair Jerry Nadler says, “Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen. You have to persuade enough of the opposition party voters or the Trump voters that you are not just trying…to reverse the results of the last election.” Nadler is right when he suggests that the impeachment process must be persuasive, and when he argues that a bipartisan approach is preferable when the Congress and the country are so divided as they now appear to be. But this notion the impeachment would “overturn” or “reverse” the results of the last election is one that ought to be examined more closely.
Congressman Jamie Raskin, the constitutional scholar who serves on the House Judiciary Committee as a Democratic representative from Maryland, says, “From the beginning of the administration, I’ve said impeachment should not be a fetish for anybody, but it should be a taboo for nobody.”
It is clear that Trump and his allies hope to render impeachment taboo by imaging it as “the greatest Witch Hunt in political history,” propelled by “crazy” Nancy Pelosi and the “fake news media” as “a total scam and excuse for the Dems losing the Election!” Trump likes to claim that he won a “landslide” victory in the 2016 presidential election as “Democrats…suffered one of the greatest defeats in the history of politics in this country.”
But that is not what happened. Trump lost the national popular vote in 2016 by 2.9 million ballots. He became president only because three states in which the majority of voters opposed his candidacy gave him narrow pluralities and a sufficient number of electoral votes to claim an Electoral College advantage. The president has no mandate upon which to build an argument against accountability.
The 46 percent of the vote Trump obtained in 2016 was less than the percentage attained by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney when he lost in 2012. In fact, the level of support for Trump was lower than that accorded to a long list of defeated presidential contenders, including John Kerry in 2004, Gerald Ford in 1976 and Richard Nixon in 1960. Notably, it was also lower than that of both the popular-vote winner of the 2000 election (Al Gore) and that year’s Electoral College winner (George W. Bush).
Impeachment is not a tool for rectifying election results. Nor should election results serve as an argument against impeachment—if we were to suggest that popular vote winners ought to be immune from accountability, then Richard Nixon would have finished his second term. But a popular-vote loser certainly should not be able to argue against impeachment on the grounds that holding him to account would countermand the message sent by the electorate.
Impeaching Donald Trump and removing him from office would not overturn the will of the people. The will of the people was that Hillary Clinton should be president. She secured 65.8 million votes to Trump’s 62.9 million. If we make the reasonable assumption that the millions of voters who cast their ballots for third-party contenders were also disinclined to make “the Donald” the president, then the anti-Trump total moves closer to 73 million. Impeaching and removing Donald Trump would make him what most voters wanted him to be when they cast their ballots in 2016: a citizen who does not hold the office of president.