Over the past few months the dreaded “I” word has been floating across the nation: impeachment. As in the impeachment of President Donald Trump – which sounds pretty good – because his words and actions have put the U.S. in a precarious global position – because he really wasn’t elected to the office – because he’s an obnoxious bastard. Okay, that last one is more of a personal opinion. And, of course, we all have a right to that!
But talk of impeaching the president of the United States is like warning Americans about visiting North Korea: don’t go there. Forcibly removing the president from office was a rare topic of discussion – even among politicians – until the 1970s. But, after the Watergate left a bitterly angry taste in the mouths of the American populace, impeachment has been tossed around as often as limes at a Mexican barbecue.
Since Watergate, only one sitting U.S. president has faced a concerted attempt at impeachment: Bill Clinton. And that was only because he engaged in an eel-hunting adventure with a perky, overweight intern, which culminated in a blue dress wardrobe malfunction before anyone invented the term.
Yet, as much as I despise Trump and as little as I thought of George W. Bush, I would look at anyone who talks of impeachment with concern. Do you realize how serious that is? Do you understand exactly what it takes to oust such a person from the White House? It’s almost like a military coup; the kind that occurs in third-world nations. Think Cuba or the Philippines. Yes, that kind. It’s nowhere near as bloody and violent; we use pens and roll-call votes here, instead of guns and machetes. But it remains a complex and arduous task.
Keep in mind that, aside from Clinton, only 2 other U.S. presidents have faced impeachment: Andrew Johnson and Richard Nixon. The key term here is faced impeachment. To date, no sitting president has actually been removed from office by impeachment. The House of Representatives has the sole power of impeaching the president, while the U.S. Senate has the sole power of trying impeachments. This all occurs under rules of law established in the Constitution; therefore, no single branch of government possesses omniscient power to remove a sitting president.
The first step, obviously, is to identify what acts performed by the president qualify as “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The House votes on articles of impeachment. If there is just one article, it requires a two-thirds majority of House members. But, if there are two or more articles of impeachment, only one of them needs to garner a majority to induce impeachment. Nixon came very close to actually being removed from office. But he resigned after the House voted in August of 1974.
Second, the proceedings move to the Senate where an actual trial is held. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court oversees the case, as they would any other legal matter. Here, a team of lawmakers from the House serves in a prosecutorial role, while the Senate is technically the jury. The president has his or her own lawyers. Once all sides have presented their arguments, the matter is handed to the Senate. If at least two-thirds of Senators vote in favor of the articles, then the president is removed from office, and the vice-president assumes the presidency.
This isn’t punishment for being tardy. The U.S. likes to present itself as a beacon of democracy for the world; a master of political dignity and fairness. If we are compelled to remove our own national leader from office, what does that say about our voting system? What does it say about the concept of democracy altogether? Is the presidential vetting process so pathetic that we can’t identify someone with a criminal mindset beforehand?
Elizabeth Holtzman is a former U.S. congresswoman from New York. In 1974, she was on the House Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach Nixon. In a 2006 essay entitled “The Impeachment of George W. Bush,” she not only describes the arduous process of removing a sitting president from office, but also the emotional toll it took on everyone in both houses of congress at the time.
“I can still remember the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach during those proceedings,” she wrote, “when it became clear that the President had so systematically abused the powers of the presidency and so threatened the rule of law that he had to be removed from office. As a Democrat who opposed many of President Nixon’s policies, I still found voting for his impeachment to be one of the most sobering and unpleasant tasks I ever had to undertake. None of the members of the committee took pleasure in voting for impeachment; after all, Democrat or Republican, Nixon was still our President.”
Curiously, she goes on to state, “At the time, I hoped that our committee’s work would send a strong signal to future Presidents that they had to obey the rule of law. I was wrong.”
In this regard, she was discussing the possible impeachment of George W. Bush. I can think of no other Chief Executive in modern times who exhibited such incompetence and corruptness as our 43rd president. That he got into office under dubious circumstances in the first place is enough to question the integrity of our electoral process. That he managed to remain there, despite mounting evidence of war crimes, is anathema to the grander concept of democracy. I’ve always said that, if the Democrats had at least made a concerted attempt to remove Bush from office, they wouldn’t just appear heroic in the eyes of their constituents; they also would have upheld the rule of law governing all institutions.
Remember that congressional Republicans tried to remove Bill Clinton for lying about his sexual dalliances. It was an incredibly one-sided, vindictive assault on democracy – all because the man didn’t want the world to know he’d screwed around on his wife and because right-wing extremists didn’t like him, no matter what he happened. You’re going to impeach him for THAT?! Then-House leader Newt Gingrich – who was married to his third wife with whom he’d cheated on his second wife – had led the cavalcade of self-righteous Republicans. He and his constituents paid for their hypocrisy when they lost their super-majorities in both Houses of Congress in the 1998 elections.
Watching the Trump presidency collapse around the real estate magnate-turned-reality-TV-star is almost laughable. But it’s not that funny. His behavioral quirks and fetish for name-calling are hallmarks of social ineptitude and, perhaps, mental instability. As with George W. Bush, that Trump actually made it into the White House is an insult to the core of the institution of democracy. Growing evidence shows that Russia interfered with the 2016 U.S. elections. Exactly how they did it has yet to be discovered – or revealed. But I honestly believe the Trump presidency is a fluke.
In his novel, “Shibumi,” author Trevanian (Rodney William Whitaker) relays the incredible tale of Nicholai Hel, a Shanghai-born spy of Russian – German heritage who is the world’s most accomplished assassin. After surviving the carnage of the Hiroshima bombing, Hel retreats to a lavish and isolated mountain citadel with his beautiful Eurasian mistress. But he’s coaxed back into the netherworld of international espionage by a young woman. Hel soon learns, however, that he’s being tracked by a mysterious and omnipotent global entity known simply as the “Mother Company.” The “Company” is a composite of corporate giants that installs leaders in key nations – even those in the developed world – manipulates the markets for such necessities as food and oil and incites wars whenever it deems appropriate. The conflict between Hel and the “Mother Company” becomes something akin to a board game, where millions of lives are used as toys for the benefit of a few powerful elitists.
I keep thinking we’re already dealing with that type of set-up; that Bush, Jr., was placed into office, so we could go to war in Iraq and gain access to their oil reserves, and that Trump was planted in the White House for whatever machinations the Russian government has underway.
But I still want everyone to be careful with the “I” word. It really is just a small step from undergoing the lengthy route of impeaching a president to rigging his limousine with explosives – like they do in those unstable third-world societies. Democracy is a difficult political state to establish. It’s even more difficult to maintain. It doesn’t function on its own; it simply can’t.
This mess we’re in may provide great material for standup comics. But it also presents us with an ethical dilemma. Again, I ask, do we truly understand how serious this talk of impeachment is?