The presidency of Donald J. Trump became official at 12:01 Eastern Standard Time on Friday afternoon, when a social-media celebrity who recently paid a $25 million settlement for scamming Americans with his fake university took the presidential oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts in front of the United States Capitol.
Those of you who are feeling dismayed by the prospect of a serial bully imminently becoming Leader of the Free World may be wondering if there is any course of action that would allow America to wake itself up from this nightmare before 2020 or, heaven forbid, 2024.
Unless you have a time machine that you could use to go back and drown James Comey’s BlackBerry before he could send out that dumbass e-mail—seriously, if you have one, now is the time to use it—the information you want relates to a process called impeachment.
First things first, though. What about a recall? Can we recall him?
We cannot. Recall is a procedure that allows voters to vote on removing an elected official from office before their term is up. It can be a response to an official’s alleged misconduct or malfeasance, but voters are also allowed to invoke the procedure if they’ve changed their minds and want a do-over. Californians recalled then–Governor Gray Davis in 2003 over budget-mismanagement concerns, replacing him in the recall election with action hero and second-rate Celebrity Apprentice host Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2012, Wisconsin successfully recalled Scott Walker, its union-busting goon of a governor, but he survived the subsequent election by a comfortable margin. (Dammit, Wisconsin.)
Anyway, yes, it would be great to take some kind of mulligan here, but the recall process is a creation of state law. There is no analogous procedure that allows voters to initiate the removal of federal elected officials. Impeachment is pretty much the only way to go.
All right then, what is impeachment, and how does it work?
Basically, it’s the power laid out in the U.S. Constitution that allows Congress to put certain officials on trial and potentially remove them from office. At a high level, the impeachment process moves through the legislature in largely the same way that a bill does, so feel free to dust off your fondest Schoolhouse Rock memories. The House Committee on the Judiciary is usually charged with investigating the relevant allegations, and if they determine that there are adequate grounds for impeachment, booting the president is a two-step process. First, the full House (that’s the legislative chamber, not the cast of the hit TV show—common mistake) votes on whether to impeach the president; second, the Senate votes on whether to convict the president of said charges. If two-thirds of the Senate votes yes, the president is out and the vice president steps in.
So, Mike Pence?
That’s still not ideal.
Listen, a racist conspiracy theorist is the president of the United States.
What are the grounds for impeachment?
Probably higher than you want them to be, to be honest. Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution states that presidents (among other federal officials) may be impeached and removed from office only for “Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
Isn’t that a Woody Allen movie?
Yes! Great memory. But in this context, it’s a decidedly unhelpful 200-plus-year-old legal term of art, and its modern meaning is a subject of significant debate. The general idea is that a “high” crime or misdemeanor must be one related to a public official’s execution of his or her duties—one that “betrays the public trust.” So, if Trump gets a jaywalking ticket or lifts a Toblerone from his nearest Duane Reade, it’s not happening. But if he uses his power to jail a political opponent, or trash the First Amendment, or sell an aircraft carrier for 20 cents on the dollar to his new best friend Vladimir Putin, then impeachment might be in play.
Can he be impeached for any of the awful shit he’s already done?
No, probably not. Impeachment is a check on elected officials abusing their power. Yes, Donald Trump has bragged about committing sex crimes and stoked racially motivated hysteria for personal gain, and he might be taking office thanks in large part to a friendly assist from a hostile foreign government hell-bent on installing a naive, malleable rube in the Oval Office. But there’s a separate process that allows the nation to render its collective judgment on a candidate’s character and fitness based on what they do before they take office. It’s called an “election,” and—I hate to break this to you—that already happened. (For real, if you have that time machine, stop reading this right now and use it.)
Why have previously impeached presidents been impeached?
It’s only happened twice in American history, and incredibly, neither instance involved Richard Nixon. Way back in 1868, the House impeached Andrew Johnson for allegedly flouting a Reconstruction-era statute that restricted the president’s ability to remove certain officeholders without Senate approval. At that time, the two-thirds Senate majority required to convict the president required that 36 of the country’s 54 senators find Johnson guilty; somehow, Johnson’s opponents could only muster 35, and he squeaked by with an acquittal.
More than a century later, the House impeached President Clinton for lying under oath while testifying in a sexual-harassment case brought against him by Paula Jones. This time, though, the Senate didn’t come close to getting the 67 votes necessary to convict him. President Clinton finished out the remainder of his term fairly quietly, though the incident became a black mark on his administration that likely contributed to then–Vice President Al Gore’s narrow defeat in the 2000 presidential election.
By the way, for his role in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel, Richard Nixon almost certainly would have been the first U.S. president to be impeached, convicted, and removed from office, but he saw the writing on the wall and resigned from the White House before it ever got that serious. This is really one of those categories where no one wants to be first.
Wait, is committing perjury during a civil sexual-harassment trial really an “abuse of power”?
Good question! Arguably not. Yes, it was a monumentally dumb idea for President Clinton to hook up with a college intern in the White House, and it was even dumber for him to lie about doing so while under oath. But it’s hard to keep a straight face and compare that to, say, treason.
So why did Congress do it anyway?
Because Bill Clinton was a Democratic president who was in the final two years of his tenure, and the Republican-controlled Congress at the time realized that they had the numbers and the political capital to get away with it. This is the most important and most depressing thing to know about impeaching a president: It’s almost always used as a political tool, not as an apolitical, ideologically pure instrument of justice. As of noon on Friday, the GOP will control the White House, the House, and the Senate. Unless Trump does something truly horrid—to be fair, I wouldn’t rule it out—it’s going to take a lot for Republican legislators to willingly surrender their newfound stranglehold on the country’s federal policymaking infrastructure.
Of course, Donald Trump is like no other president in history, and it’s possible that he could govern in such a wildly irresponsible way that Republicans eventually conclude that mere partisan alignment is not enough to deter them from going after him. As Alex Pareene recently argued, with a capable and traditional conservative like Mike Pence waiting in the wings should Trump falter, Republicans would be crazy not to impeach Trump at their earliest convenience and install a more traditional GOP president who could push their party’s agenda forward without the threat of an unhinged pre-dawn Twitter rant hanging over their heads.
Pareene is right, but as they always say in Washington, an unqualified madman in the hand is worth two Mike Pences in the bush. It would be a tremendous gamble for Republican leaders to risk cannibalizing their newfound populist support by blithely selling out the guy who made it all happen for them in the first place.
Wait, what’s this about bushes?
Think of it this way: No matter what happens in the first two years of a new presidential administration, the president’s party almost always loses seats in the subsequent midterm election, so Republicans are already facing a challenging lineup of elections in 2018. Even if it looks like the right long-term move for their party and for the country, and even if Trump does things that could constitute grounds for impeachment—hell, it already seems like he’s going out of his way to try—the process becomes relevant only if the powers that be are willing to make it so. In this political landscape, Ryan and McConnell and friends will be far too risk-averse (or cowardly, depending on your point of view) to go through with any of it.
So the chances really aren’t good, huh?
Yeah. All the available evidence indicates that Donald Trump will be a bombastic but ultimately feckless figurehead of a president at best, and a dangerous, divisive despot who torpedos the U.S. economy and gleefully embraces terrifying Cold War–era nuclear brinksmanship at worst. But impeachment of presidents is almost always about political expediency, not responsible governance, which means he’s not going anywhere. For now, at least.
Damn. Is there anything else we can do about this?
Yep. Vote in 2020. Less than four years to go.
AUTHOR: Jay Willis writes for GQ Magazine