What would actually happen if Donald Trump was impeached?

Mr Trump is already due to enter court over fraud claims

Charlotte England
Thursday 10 November 2016 19:36 GMT
There have been protests against Donald Trump's election win, such as this one in New York
There have been protests against Donald Trump's election win, such as this one in New York (AFP/Getty)

Google searches for how to remove a president from office increased by nearly 5,000 per cent after Donald Trump won the top job on Wednesday 8 November.

Even before he was chosen as the Republican nominee, some people had been asking if Mr Trump could be impeached in the event that he took office. One law professor has now said there is already enough evidence to remove him before he officially takes office.

Mr Trump also faces civil proceedings over an alleged fraud relating to Trump University, with the case due to go to court later this month.

Anti-Donald Trump protests erupt across US as cities declare billionaire 'Not My President'

But in reality the process of impeachment is more complicated — and less mechanical — than some angry Democrats hope.

What is impeachment?

In the US, impeachment is the first step in a constitutionally sanctioned two stage process to remove a president from office for committing “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”.

According to constitutional lawyers, high crimes and misdemeanours are: "real criminality"; "abuses of power"; or "violation of public trust”.

Beyond these definitions it is up to the House of Representatives to decide if an offence warrants impeachment.

In 1970, then-Representative Gerald Ford defined an impeachable offence as: ”Whatever a majority of the House of Representatives considers it to be at a given moment in history.“

The House of Representatives decides if there are grounds to consider impeaching a president through an inquiry, a debate, and then a vote, which should include all members of the house. If a majority find the President guilty on any charges, it will result in impeachment.

However, not a lot actually happens as the result of an initial impeachment. The offending Head of State retains office and can pretty much go about their business as usual until the second stage of the process, in which they will be either convicted or cleared at a trial established by the Senate.

In this trial, the President will be represented by lawyers; a select group of House members will serve as "prosecutors"; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court will preside; and all 100 Senators will act as the jury.

If in the Senate a two-thirds majority find the president guilty, he will be convicted and removed from office.

Could President Trump be impeached?

Yes, but it is pretty unlikely.

No president has ever actually been removed from office as a result of impeachment, although two — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton — were found guilty of wrongdoing by the House of Representatives, before being cleared by the Senate, and in 1974 President Richard Nixon resigned rather than facing an impeachment process for several charges related to the Watergate scandal.

A major obstacle to impeaching Mr Trump is that both the House of Representatives and the Senate are controlled by the Republicans. Lots of people have speculated that Mr Trump's own party are unlikely to impeach him, unless of course they are put under a huge amount of public pressure.

But, then again, it is not impossible: many Republicans actually do not like the president-elect at all.

Notably, the Republican Speaker Paul Ryan is an outspoken enemy of Mr Trump. The two men have been openly hostile to each other throughout the campaign period, with both initially refusing to endorse the other.

So the House could theoretically turn against him. But are there real grounds for impeachment?

Arguably, yes — a University of Utah law professor called Christopher Lewis Peterson has written a 23-page article analysing why it would be correct for Congress to impeach Mr Trump.

Mr Peterson believes Mr Trump has engaged in fraud and racketeering, which meet the criteria of “high crimes and misdemeanours.”

According to Mr Peterson, the Constitution does not prohibit Congress from impeaching a president for alleged acts that happened prior to taking office.

The case against Mr Trump will become more compelling if he is actually convicted of offences, which could happen before he enters the White House. Mr Trump was set to face criminal proceedings for allegedly raping a 13-year-old girl, but the case was dropped. However the president-elect is still set to go to court later this month to defend himself against allegations of fraud brought by former students of the now closed Trump University. A number of students claim they were misled into paying up to $35,000 to learn worthless real estate investing “secrets”.

Once a president has taken office they are immune from lawsuits arising during their time as head of state, but the Supreme Court has said this does not extend to acts alleged to have taken place prior to taking office.

So the House of Representatives could turn against Mr Trump, and there could be sufficient legal grounds to impeach him. But to actually kickstart start the mechanism for removing him from office there would probably have to be a shift in public opinion.

While many Americans have taken to the streets in protest against Mr Trump being elected president, many others voted him in and his core support is clearly strong.

Bruce Fein, who worked in the Justice Department during Ronald Reagan's presidency, and was also involved in the Republican-led effort to impeach Bill Clinton, told Politico: “Ninety-nine percent of the game is how popular is the President.”

At the moment Mr Trump probably has too many supporters for an impeachment to take place. However, he has promised to do lots of things which could change this. If the economy took a downturn for example, he could make enough enemies to start the process.

What would happen if he was impeached?

If Mr Trump was impeached, convicted by the Senate, and removed from office, Vice President-elect Mike Pence would immediately take the oath of office and become President.

In the highly unlikely event of Mr Trump and Mr Pence both being impeached at the same time, the presidency would fall to the Speaker of the House, Mr Ryan.

Unfortunately, many people who might want to impeach Mr Trump would probably not prefer his running mate as President; Mr Pence has previously said gay marriage represents the “deterioration of family” and “societal collapse”; he opposes abortion, has denied climate change, and believes there has been "too much talk of institutional bias or racism in law enforcement".

Because the impeachment of a US president is unprecedented, it is uncertain whether Mr Pence would be considered to have an unquestionable mandate to lead, on the grounds that he was elected vice-President, or if the American public could push for another presidential election and vote in someone else entirely.

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