How to get away with High Crimes and Misdemeanours

Recently, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced that Congress would be beginning an impeachment investigation into the activities of President Donald Trump. Trump responded to the announcement as one by now would expect, by ranting on Twitter. But what does this actually mean for America? This article will take you through what impeachment proceedings actually are, why they are being opened now, and what could happen at the end of it all.

As any fan of the series will have realised, the title is taken from the show How to Get Away with Murder, and yes, there is a reason for this beyond the fact that I’ve recently been binge-watching the show. The reason is that the term impeachment is widely misunderstood, often being used to refer to the immediate removal of the President from office. This is far from the case, so, in order to understand what is going on currently in America, we first need to take a quick Law 100 class and history lesson.

Contrary to popular belief, to this day no US President has ever been removed from office as a direct result of impeachment proceedings. In the interest of full disclosure, two US Presidents have technically been impeached, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, but both remained in office until the end of their terms. Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached.

So, what kind of behaviour would actually trigger impeachment proceedings? Well, the legal definition requires the President to have committed any one of “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours.” Of course, the wording of “other high crimes and misdemeanours” has been largely left up to interpretation and as a result, it’s down to Congress to make the case that the actions of the President have met that threshold.

Given now that Pelosi has announced they are starting an investigation into impeachment proceedings clearly she feels that President Trump’s behaviour has met that threshold. Additionally, according to CBS, around 90% of House Democrats now support either impeachment itself, or at least beginning an investigation into whether or not the President should be impeached.

The impeachment proceedings themselves begin in the House of Representatives, which is currently controlled by the Democratic Party. Essentially, the House will begin investigations into the behaviour of President Trump and they will then present articles of impeachment – detailing the behaviour that they feel has met the threshold worthy of impeachment proceedings – to the House Judiciary Committee.

The Judiciary Committee will then decide if the articles meet the threshold for “treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanours,” and if they do they will be presented to the House for a majority vote. If at least one of the articles of impeachment recieve a majority vote in the House then the President will technically have been impeached. However, that is not to say that the President would be removed from office.

The impeachment proceedings would then work their way up to the Senate, which is currently held by Republicans. The Senate would hold a trial and then take a vote on whether or not the President should be convicted. This vote would require a two-thirds majority to pass, and given that the Senate is currently 52% Republican-controlled, the Democrats would need 20 Republicans to turn on Trump for him to be removed from office.

This last step is where the proceedings against Presidents Johnson and Clinton fell apart. Both proceedings saw articles of impeachment recieve a majority vote in the House of Representatives, but neither received a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

In Johnson’s case, a 35-19 vote for each of the three articles of impeachment tabled in the Senate was one vote away from the two-thirds majority required. With regards to Clinton, two articles of impeachment reached the Senate concerning perjury and obstruction of justice. The charge of perjury only saw 45 out of 100 Senators support a conviction, and the charge of obstruction of justice received a 50:50 split for both sides. Both charges were well short of the 67 votes required to remove Clinton from office.

It is also worth stating that Richard Nixon received articles of impeachment, as well. Three of them to be precise, with another two being rejected by the House Judiciary Committee. Those three articles concerned obstruction of justice, abuse of power and contempt of congress. None of those ever made it to a vote, however, because Nixon resigned before that could happen.

So, the question now is, what exactly are the Democrats beginning impeachment proceedings over? Well, in reality, there is no limit as to what could be put in front of the House Judiciary Committee. There is certainly a case to be made regarding Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and then equally regarding Trump’s potential obstruction of justice for ordering the firing of Special Counsel Robert Mueller while he was investigating the President. Additionally, there are questions to be answered for the payment made to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who slept with Trump. However, the straw that seems to have broken the camel’s back per se, looks to have been in relation to Ukraine.

The recent scandal over Trump’s dealings with the President of Ukraine boils down to Trump attempting to use his leverage, as President of the United States, to coerce the Ukrainian President into opening an investigation into Trump’s 2020 rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. The allegation is that Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine until they agreed to dig up dirt on Biden. As far as impeachment is concerned, this is almost the textbook definition of an article for abuse of power.

However, as previously mentioned, there is nothing stopping the House Democrats from investigating as many avenues as they want and writing up multiple articles of impeachment. For another example, just yesterday President Trump publically asked China to investigate Joe Biden, and as each day passes Trump’s raving on Twitter seems to become more and more unhinged.

House Democrats could even broadcast their investigations to the whole nation, as was done to Richard Nixon. Certainly it will require a massive amount of public pressure to result in the removal of Trump from office, as there are currently no outward signs that 20 Republican Senators would vote against their Party leader in a trial, but televised hearings may be one way to accomplish that.

However, that is not to say this is an open and shut case. Per Gallup polls, Nixon’s public approval plummeted from around 70% in February 1973, to 45% after the televised hearings in May of that year. Conversely, support for Nixon’s removal from office grew from 19% in June of 1973, to 57% in April of 1974.

The key element to understand here is that impeachment itself is a process, not an end. Watergate didn’t happen overnight and Nixon certainly had no plans on resigning at the beginning of the investigation. It took around 15 months from the televised hearings to Nixon’s resignation, during which time events like the Saturday Night Massacre massively affected public opinion.

If Democrats today can create a similar investigation then they will certainly force a good amount of Republicans to think twice before they cast their vote in the Senate.

To illustrate this point look no further than Rep. Earl Landgrebe from Indiana. Landgrebe was a Nixon-loyalist who stood by the President even when almost every other Republican seemed to be throwing in the towel. Landgrebe tried to defend the indefensible. He was quoted as saying “I’m going to stick by my President, even if he and I have to be taken out of this building and shot.” Nixon resigned the very next day and Landgrebe went down tied to the sinking ship, costing him his political career. At the next election Landgrebe managed to turn a 55-45 win into a 39-61 loss against the same candidate both times.

If Democrats play this right then Republicans may have to choose between their country and their party. If they choose their party then they will have an uphill battle to face at the ballot box, to say the least.

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Matthew Hemmins

Second year History/Economics student with a passion for politics and plenty of opinions on a variety of topics!