What Qualifies A President For Impeachment?

Jul 19, 2018

USU professor explains what evidence would have to be available to impeach President Donald Trump.
Credit whitehouse.gov

During the past 18 months of Donald Trump’s presidency, there have been national conversations about whether or not he should be impeached. There are organized efforts to move the idea forward, including the group Need to Impeach, which recently visited Utah.

Utah State University associate professor of politics, Michael Lyons said the United States’ Constitution contains almost no information about what actions qualify a government official for impeachment.

“This is true so often with things in the Constitution,” Lyons said. “You know people want to cling to the Constitution and follow the framers intent closely or follow the language closely, but the fact of the matter is in many cases, and impeachment is an example, the language is vague and we don’t know what the intentions are clearly.”

In the whole of the constitution, there is one sentence about impeachment qualifications. It reads, “The president, vice president and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

“When you throw high crimes together with misdemeanors it becomes really confusing,” Lyons said. “Because in the modern context a misdemeanor is a minor crime. And yet the framers deliberately put the term high as a modifier of crimes. So if it’s a medium range crime then it’s not an impeachable offense.”

Another interpretation of misdemeanor Lyons said could be offensive behavior, could include drunkenness, which has been the basis of impeachment of several federal judges.

“We don’t know what the framers really intended, but we do know that they rejected a proposal to make maladministration an impeachable offense,” Lyons said.

Maladministration simply means bad leadership Lyons said. While many may argue Trump has made bad decisions while in office, Lyons said that isn’t the standard for impeachment.

“I have yet to see anything that indicates clearly to me that high crimes were committed,” Lyons said. “If Donald Trump personally got on the phone to Vladimir Putin, or Russian saboteurs with access to Facebook and personally coordinated an effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, then that would meet the standard of impeachment I think. But there’s no reason to believe that anything like that occurred.”

A United States president has never been successfully removed from office through impeachment. Out of the 44 men to hold presidential office, only eight have ever faced impeachment.

Of that eight, only two have faced the potential of a Senate impeachment hearing, which includes Richard Nixon. Nixon resigned before Congress could begin impeachment proceedings, but Lyons said it is likely he would have been impeached.

“At least we have that precedent that suggests that you need that level of seriousness or that level of seriousness does clear the bar but how much below that level of seriousness might clear the bar? We don’t know,” Lyons said.

And as that level of seriousness is determined, Lyons said it is important that the concept of impeachment isn’t trivialized.

“It demeans the Constitution, it devalues the Constitution, to regard things in the Constitution lightly, and to make the constitution a weapon in partisan politics. That’s not what the framers had in mind when they designed the constitution-- they wanted it to be the supreme law of the land. They wanted it to define what United State Government is,” Lyons said.

For those who do want to remove the president from office, Lyons says the best solution is to vote accordingly.

“Donald Trump deserves to be tried in the court of public opinion,” Lyons said. “And in the upcoming election, and in the 2020 election, he deserves to be tried on the basis of his competence as president. But to invoke the constitution, and to make the claim that he’s violated the constitution, is to bring the constitution into something that is much better worked out as an explicitly political process, a difference of opinion.”