The president has demonstrated as much ignorance of constitutional matters as contempt for the principles that inspired the Founding Fathers.
Donald Trump is starting his personal journey in the face of impeachment. We do not know how it will end, but this situation will not only be a test for Trump but will also test the strength of the U.S. constitutional framework. Both 20th century precedents for impeachment are well known, and the procedure was not carried out to the end in either case. Bill Clinton watched with relief as Congress let the accusation against him fall by the wayside, given how serious an uncertain outcome could be. It is true that members of Congress ultimately regarded the whole mess with intern Monica Lewinsky as slightly blown out of proportion. Fine, the president “had lied;” Congress eventually concluded that this global moral purity craze where nobody is allowed to get away with even a small lie (which is so in vogue these days) was preposterous.*
Let us not forget the other, much more serious scenario, that of Richard Nixon in 1974. That was not about a small lie but rather about abuse of power, spying on political opponents and a long ordeal called Watergate. What led to President Nixon’s voluntary resignation at the time was the seriousness of the case, the magnitude of the crime and the fact that the Republican Party itself, in 1974, acted in the best interest of the Constitution, putting it before its own politics. And Nixon yielded. The third case dates back to the end of the American Civil War, in 1865, and Congress was able to demonstrate its power before the executive branch, that is to say, the White House.
The First Rung
Everything is quite different now, and much worse. First and foremost, what the House of Representatives has approved − thanks to its Democratic majority − is to formally start the process that could possibly lead to the president’s impeachment. In other words, this is the start of a long-distance race where very strict procedural rules are agreed to, and at the end of this first stage − which is akin to bringing formal charges against the president − there is another rung. Here, it would be up to the Senate to judge − that is to say, vote − on whether it should remove the president from office.
The first hurdle is in the Senate, where Republicans have a clear majority, and where the current Republican Party is not the same party it was in 1974, much less the party of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s. Many Republican representatives fear their constituents, particularly in states that went to Trump. A second hurdle would be that, since he took office, Trump has demonstrated as much ignorance of constitutional matters as contempt for the principles that inspired the Founding Fathers. Given that he has already said more than once that he does not accept dictates from Congress, he seems capable of barricading himself in the White House, of refusing to testify, or, while he is at it, of building a wall in Colorado (in the event of the arrival of Mexicans) and another on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, in the event of the arrival of congressional Democrats.
Anything goes, and anything will go. The U.S. constitutional system has never had to face such a challenge, much less a challenge posed by the president of the nation himself.
*Editor’s note: The House of Representatives adopted articles of impeachment for Clinton on Dec. 19, 1998 and forwarded them to the Senate for trial, where Clinton was acquitted.