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G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young: We can't afford to impeach Trump

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, 7:03 p.m.
Birds fly at dusk by the White House, Tuesday Jan. 8, 2019, in Washington, a few hours before President Trump is expected to make an address to the nation.
Birds fly at dusk by the White House, Tuesday Jan. 8, 2019, in Washington, a few hours before President Trump is expected to make an address to the nation.

Seventeen!

That’s the number of separate federal and state ongoing investigations targeting President Trump. This number omits the dozens of civil lawsuits the president or his businesses are confronting.

Under this unprecedented scrutiny,

Trump is easily the most investigated president in American history. As Democrats take over the House, they will initiate multiple new investigations into all aspects of Trump’s personal and professional life , as well as his business empire .

Not surprisingly, the president has confided to close friends his deep concern about the possibilities of impeachment. He should be concerned. Majority House Democrats now can impeach him since the power to impeach resides solely in the House — while actual removal from office requires two-thirds concurrence in the Senate after a trial.

The U.S. Constitution spells out the grounds for impeachment: “Treason, Bribery or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” In reality, however, impeachment is a political rather than a legal process; hence the grounds for impeachment are whatever a majority of the House decides. Since the founding of the Republic, only two presidents have been impeached — while a third, Richard Nixon, would have been impeached and almost certainly convicted had he not resigned his office.

In the first case of actual impeachment,

President Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868 on a straight party line vote — ostensibly for his firing of Secretary of War Edmund Stanton , which violated the Tenure of Office Act . But, the real reason for Johnson’s impeachment was political. A Democrat, he was following a more lenient policy toward the defeated states of the South after the Civil War. Republicans running Congress feared he would disrupt their tougher reconstruction policies. Johnson survived removal in the Senate by a single vote.

The impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 also was rooted in policy differences. Ultimately, Clinton’s denial of an affair with a White House intern led him into a maze of legal depositions and grand jury testimony in which he perjured himself. This in turn led to accusations of obstruction of justice, perjury and abuse of power. Eventually, the House approved two articles of impeachment, alleging perjury and obstruction of justice. Clinton, however, was comfortably acquitted in the Senate.

Any fair reading of history must conclude that impeachment has been a flawed tool for removing a president. Historically, from Johnson through Clinton, it has not worked as the Founding Fathers hoped it would. (Although in Nixon’s case it can be argued that its threat brought about a necessary end.)

Worse perhaps, we don’t really have a better constitutional method to deal with the constitutional crisis brought on by a failed presidency. Most analysts have concluded the 25th Amendment will work only in the narrowly tailored circumstances of an obviously disabled president — circumstances that don’t exist in this situation. Nor do other constitutional remedies exist. We are not a parliamentary system, so can’t remove a president with a “vote of no confidence” as, for example, the UK can (and has frequently done). And, much to our credit and stability as a nation, we have no history of coups or other non-constitutional methods to remove a president.

Consequently, the options to remove a president from office are few. Some sort of negotiated arrangement similar to that accompanying Richard Nixon’s resignation is possible — presumably with similar legal inducements that allowed Nixon to enter private life immune to possible criminal charges. But, a Nixonian-style settlement seems unlikely today since ongoing separate state investigations might still ensnare Trump in a legal morass. Even more problematic, the enormous scope of legal issues confronting Trump extend to his family, making a negotiated legal exit a logistical nightmare.

The remaining option is to allow Trump’s term to run out, abandoning efforts to remove him early from office. No one fully knows the implication of Trump finishing his term. But America in 2½ centuries has survived much worse than another two years of a Trump presidency.

Moreover, he was constitutionally elected — and up to 40 percent of voters still support him, so efforts to remove him early would leave the country even more divided and polarized than it is now. The costs to be incurred from two more years of a Trump presidency may be trivial compared to the costs of removing him.

“What can’t be cured must be endured” is a hoary old maxim that nevertheless fits our situation. The problems of the Trump presidency probably can’t be cured — but they can be endured. We can’t afford the alternative.

G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College. Michael Young is a speaker, pollster, author and former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State.

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