The Timing of Impeachment

Spirited Reasoners know, or ought to know, the basics of Constitutional law when it comes to impeachment. Too many Americans incorrectly believe that the word “impeach” means “remove from office.” To keep things straight, it’s useful to remember that impeachment is a form of indictment. It just means that the office holder is required to stand trial. The second step—conviction—is what removes the wrongdoer from office.

Here’s the exact language from Article II, Section 4, of the U. S. Constitution:

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.” (Observe the key phrase “and Conviction of”)

Sharp-eyed Reasoners will note, however, that the title of this post includes the word “Timing.” Should it matter that the current firestorm is happening less than a year before the parties choose their nominees for the 2020 general election?

The answer to that question is Yes.

To understand that answer, we need to study the wording of two more Constitutional provisions.

From the last clause of Article I, Section 2:

The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”

And from a clause near the end of Article I, Section 3:

The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

So, at the very least, two separate votes would be required before the President of the United States would be removed from office: (1) the House’s majority-vote decision on whether to impeach, i. e., indict; and (2) the Senate’s decision after a trial, with conviction requiring a two-thirds majority.

And don’t forget, during part two, the Chief Justice must leave the nation’s most important pending legal cases behind at the Supreme Court so he can preside over the trial in the Senate.

How long would all this take?

This question may explain why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was so reluctant to jump on the impeachment bandwagon. She could see downsides to all three of the following scenarios:

  1. Donald Trump is quickly impeached and convicted, a result which elevates Vice President Pence to the office of President. Then, instead of running against the man who tweets nonsense and obscenities in the middle of the night, the man Democrats love to hate, they face a new incumbent President, one who knows how to hide the fist of extreme conservatism inside a velvet glove of manners and respectability. It’s no longer decent people vs. Trump. It’s liberals vs. conservatives. A very different election.
  2. Donald Trump is impeached by the House but the Senate fails to convict. (Remember, conviction requires a two-thirds margin.) President Trump crows that he has been found innocent. He can now take on the aura of a man who is invincible, the man the Democrats failed to take down.
  3. The House votes to impeach, but the Senate drags its feet, so that the trial has barely begun by the time most states have already finished their party primaries. Republican senators complain that “all this impeachment nonsense” has distracted lawmakers from the real issues American voters care about. So, the focus of the general election is transformed from a referendum on Donald Trump to one on the wisdom of whether the Democrats were right to waste everyone’s time on a complicated impeachment trial.

There are other scenarios as well.

The flip side of all this, of course, is that a President should not be allowed to get away with using extortion to force foreign nations to help his political campaign. But Spirited Reasoners know that common sense observations of this type do not always win elections.

There’s a painful political drama being played out on our national stage, one not contemplated by the Constitution. Americans like the idea of choosing their President at the polls. They’re not so keen on Congress doing that job for them, especially when there’s an election scheduled less than a year before an impeachment trial in the Senate could possibly begin.

With that in mind, it wouldn’t surprise me if at least one Democratic candidate opts for the following strategy: “Hey, folks. We don’t need to waste our time on an impeachment trial. Let’s throw Donald Trump out on November 3, 2020. That would be the ultimate impeachment.”