Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson is contributing editor and columnist for The Daily Memphian, the political analyst for WMC-TV, and the Fulmer professor of political science at Rhodes College. His latest books are “Trump: The First Two Years” and “The American Presidency: Origins and Development, 1776-2018.”

Nelson: Steve Cohen's push for impeachment is doomed

By Published: March 12, 2019 4:29 PM CT

How likely is it that U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen’s hope of impeaching and removing Donald Trump will be fulfilled? 

Not very, if the history of past impeachment campaigns is any guide.

Cohen’s efforts to force the president from office began in August 2017, barely six months after Trump began his term. He first argued that because “high crimes and misdemeanor” – the Constitution’s definition of an impeachable offense – are anything Congress says they are, Trump theoretically could be impeached “for jaywalking.” 

The congressman from Memphis got a bit more serious – but only a bit – in November 2017, when he and five other Democrats introduced an impeachment resolution charging Trump with, among other things, firing FBI director James Comey, calling a federal judge “a so-called judge” and the media “fake news,” and violating the Constitution’s emoluments clauses through continued ownership of rental properties in New York and Washington.

Since the Democrats won control of the House of Representatives last November, Cohen has renewed his call. On Feb. 27, commenting on Michael Cohen’s (no relation) testimony before the chamber’s Oversight and Reform Committee, Cohen said, “These investigations are the precursor to impeachment. I don’t see a downside.”

What does the history of presidential impeachments tell us about the likelihood that Cohen will succeed?

Historically, two of Trump’s 44 predecessors – Tennessee’s own Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton from Arkansas in 1998 – have been impeached by the House. Neither was removed by the required two-thirds vote of the Senate. A third, Richard Nixon, resigned in August 1974 in the face of certain impeachment and removal. 

Four elements account for the varying ways Congress dealt with Johnson (a very close call), Nixon (a clear rejection), and Clinton (close in the House, but not in the Senate). A fifth element that applies only to Trump makes it even less likely that he will be driven out.

As might be expected from a constitutional process that entrusts impeachment to elected officials, partisan politics is the first historical element.

An overwhelmingly Republican Congress (191-46 in the House and 42-11 in the Senate) impeached and came within one vote of removing the Democrat Johnson. A solidly Democratic Congress (242-191 in the House and 56-42 in the Senate) forced the Republican Nixon to resign. And a Republican Congress (226-207 in the House, 55-45 in the Senate) impeached but did not remove Clinton, a Democrat.  

Having Congress controlled by the opposition party may be a necessary condition for impeaching a president, but clearly it is not a sufficient one. Many presidents have faced such a Congress for at least part of their time in office without being impeached. 

A second element is the president’s standing with the voters. Even without polls to measure how unpopular Johnson was, the results of the 1866 midterm elections made clear to his contemporaries that he had little public support. Nixon’s job approval rating in the Gallup Poll sank below 30 percent in late 1973 and stayed there. 

Clinton’s case is more complicated. His party actually gained five House seats in the 1998 midterm. His job approval rating remained above 60 percent during the entire controversy, soaring to 73 percent in December 1998 after the House voted to impeach him. 

House Republicans, however, were motivated by fear of their chamber’s party leaders, who were determined to force out the president, and by their knowledge that the greatest possible threat to their re-election would come from the equally anti-Clinton Republican primary voters in their districts. Representing more politically diverse states, with six-year terms to shield them, significant numbers of Republican senators broke ranks and supported Clinton on the final votes for removal.

A third element in explaining impeachment politics is the immediate practical consequence of forcing out a president. To remove one president is to install another. 

Enough moderate Republicans dreaded the prospect of the radical Senate president pro tempore Ben Wade becoming president under the succession laws of the day that they held their noses and stood by Johnson. In Nixon’s case, Vice President Gerald Ford, widely respected for his integrity, was an acceptable alternative among members of both parties.

Clinton’s case is again less clear. Congressional Democrats would have been happy and Republican legislators unhappy to see Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessean, succeed to the presidency – and for the same reason: It would give him the advantages of incumbency in the 2000 presidential election. But the fervency of both parties’ primary electorates prevented them from acting on this basis.

Fourth, public attitudes toward impeachment in general color the likelihood that a president may be impeached. 

During the 184-year period from 1789 to 1973, Johnson was the only president to undergo the process, and that failed effort seemed to discredit impeachment as a “vengefully political act,” according to political scientist Clinton Rossiter. In the increasingly polarized era that followed, however, attitudes changed. From 1974 to 1999, two presidents were in effect impeached. 

More to the point, every president since Clinton – George W. Bush, Barack Obama and now Trump – has been the object of a grassroots campaign to impeach him by opposition party activists. In the contemporary climate of bitter partisanship, impeachment strikes many as just another method of “politics by other means.”

What light does this history shed on the possibility of impeaching and removing Trump? 

Clearly Trump is unpopular, although his seemingly rock-solid 40 percent support among voters is greater than Nixon’s or, as best we can tell, Johnson’s. It’s also clear that many Republican legislators would secretly be much happier with President Mike Pence than President Donald Trump. And public attitudes toward impeachment as a legitimate weapon of political combat show no signs of abating.

Cohen’s prospects for getting rid of Trump mostly come down, then, to the partisan composition of Congress. The midterm elections gave the Democrats control of the House, which is the body that by a simple majority vote can impeach the president. But those same elections increased from 51 to 53 the Republican majority in the Senate. 

Let’s do the math. Two-thirds of 100 equals 67 votes needed to remove. The Democrats occupy 47 seats. That means every Democrat plus 20 Republicans would have to vote against Trump to force him from office.

Barring some astonishing revelation – direct deposits by the Russian government into Trump’s bank account, the delivery of nuclear secrets from the White House to Kim Jung-Un, the revelation that underneath his hairdo “666” is stamped on Trump’s scalp – that probably isn’t going to happen. 

Then there’s a fifth Trump-specific element that underlies the politics of impeachment. Johnson (for political reasons) and Nixon and Clinton (because of the two-term limit on presidents) were never going to be on the ballot again. The only way to get them out of office was to drive them out. 

Trump is going to be on the ballot in 2020, about a year and a half from now. By the time an impeachment process could even get rolling, voters will already be casting ballots in Iowa and New Hampshire. In other words, there’s no reason not to let the American people take care of removing Trump if that’s what they want.

Cohen and his fellow impeachment advocates will surely continue to enjoy rubbing each others’ sores when it comes to hating Trump. They may even score some political points on the left by doing so. But for those who want a different president, the electoral process is the only serious route to change.


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