Geoffrey Vaughan is a professor and chair of the department of Political Science at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.
The articles of impeachment against U.S. President Donald Trump will finally move from the House of Representatives to the Senate. Having been released from the suspense, we can allow impeachment’s peculiar and often confusing features to come into focus. Especially for anyone living under a parliamentary system, it may seem unnecessarily complicated and, some would say, undemocratic.
The American system so clearly separates the powers of government that it cannot accommodate a middling check on the powers of the executive. It must be all or nothing – throw him out of office or slap him on the wrist. Impeachment without conviction will have as much of an effect on the President as if he had not been impeached in the first place. Not a single power will be removed or limited, not a single action will be undone. But getting there is difficult.
Where the House requires only a bare majority of representatives to approve articles of impeachment, the Senate must reach a supermajority of two-thirds to convict. Separating the duties of impeachment is like having two separate keys for launching nuclear missiles. If all the senators decide to show up, everyone still expects the vote to fall far short of the 67 needed. To put this in perspective, no president has ever been convicted, even when the Senate was controlled by the opposing party.
Impeachment was neither designed nor meant to be a vote of no confidence in the executive branch. Whether one branch has confidence in any of the others is not an issue. At the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the term “maladministration” was specifically removed from the list of impeachable offences. According to James Madison, the father of the Constitution, “So vague a term will be equivalent to a tenure during pleasure of the Senate.” They took out “maladministration” so that impeachment would not be about policy.
And yet it is not exactly a dispassionate judicial exercise, either. In one of his essays that helped ratify the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton predicted that “there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.” We can see this playing out right now with Mr. Trump, as it did for Bill Clinton when his own party in the Senate protected him.
From the perspective of a parliamentary system, the complications of impeachment can seem overblown. Prime ministers lose the confidence of the House all the time, and the heavens have not fallen. In fact, the opposite is more the case. Losing confidence in a prime minister keeps the bodies moving in their proper order within the parliamentary firmament. That is not quite true of impeaching a president. Impeachment means that the normal procedures cannot maintain the proper functioning of the civic order.
House Democrats are caught in the middle of their own ambivalence on the issue of impeachment. On the one hand, they impeached the President because they see Mr. Trump as an imminent danger to the constitutional order. On the other hand, they have been willing to compromise and work with him on trade deals and budgets, and some have even attended his Christmas parties. Most significantly, they delayed sending the articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial until now. Do Democrats really think Trump is an “existential threat” to democracy if they work with him in so many ways and delay his trial?
Impeachment is an imperfect instrument because it is both about the individual and about the office. In other words, much of the motivation is personally directed at Mr. Trump while it is also about more than him, a fact that neither the President nor his most ardent opponents can see. The supreme irony in all of this is that Mr. Trump is living out the reality-TV drama that he is known for. But impeachment has risen to a level beyond confidence in a particular official; it is about confidence in an office.
The best case against convicting Mr. Trump is that doing so would imperil the very office of the presidency. The best case for convicting him is that he is doing so already. He will be convicted only if 20 Republican senators can be convinced that a President with 89-per-cent approval by his party is the greatest individual threat to the country. No one has confidence that they will.
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