Mea Culpa: the ‘false hopes’ of Donald Trump’s impeachment

Finer points of the US Constitution and of the rules of succession in hereditary monarchies in this week’s Independent

John Rentoul
Friday 01 September 2017 14:32
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Bill Clinton was impeached during his second term, and then swiftly acquitted
Bill Clinton was impeached during his second term, and then swiftly acquitted

We published a letter from a reader in Tennessee this week, begging us not to publish news stories suggesting that Donald Trump might be impeached. I had some sympathy with Rachelle Martin, but for different reasons. She did not want us to give people “false hope” that President Trump might be impeached because she feared that the “momentum of the opposition will be lost”.

I am not sure about the second part, but our correspondent makes a good point about the likelihood of impeachment. As a news organisation, The Independent is bound to report the possibility of high-news-value events, even if their probability is low, but we ought to be clearer in our reporting about how the US Constitution works.

We should remember that “impeach” means “charge”; that a President can be removed only if he or she is “convicted” (of a “high crime or misdemeanour”); and that the whole process is entirely political. Impeachment requires the vote of a simple majority in the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of Congress. This is unlikely to happen to President Trump, even after next year’s mid-term elections. Conviction requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which is much less likely.

Impeachment is a big deal, and we should report anything that suggests it is becoming more likely, but we should be clear that it is the first stage of a two-stage political procedure. And we should always remember that Bill Clinton was impeached, in his second term, by a Republican House of Representatives, and then acquitted shortly afterwards by the Senate.

War of succession: We wondered this week about why Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite the union, had tipped Emily Thornberry as a possible successor to Jeremy Corbyn. The short headline read: “Is Thornberry really the heir apparent?”

It is a common journalistic device to treat party leaderships as if they were hereditary monarchies, and it is also quite common to get the analogy confused. An heir apparent is an heir whose claim cannot be set aside by the birth of another. What we were thinking of was an heir presumptive, a relation who would succeed to the Crown if the current monarch died now, but who could be displaced if, for example, the current monarch were to have a child.

That is what Thornberry is like: she might become the favourite to succeed Corbyn (she isn’t yet – Keir Starmer is), but if she did, she could still be beaten to the metaphorical crown.

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