Even with evidence of ‘high crimes,’ impeaching Trump would probably fail

History shows it’s harder than it looks to remove a president from office.

Trump’s reported hush payments to women during the 2016 campaign: “It may be an impeachable offense if it goes to the question of the president procuring his office through corrupt means.” 

.. Democrats would investigate Trump’s retaliations against media sources that have reported news about him that he doesn’t like as abuses of “instruments of state power.”

.. three-quarters of self-identified Democratic voters in this month’s elections support impeachment

.. they may well be right that Trump’s actions — on several fronts — could clear the threshold of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But no one should suffer illusions about the likely result of any impeachment attempts.

.. Being deemed unfit for office — the condition intended by the Founding Fathers to trigger impeachment in the House — has never been enough to get the Senate to remove a president.

History suggests that there wouldn’t be a successful conviction by two-thirds of senators without two other conditions in place:

  1. A chief executive must also be deeply unpopular. And
  2. booting him from office must seem more advantageous for the opposition in the next election than letting him remain there.

.. “High crimes and misdemeanors,” he says, “ought to be held to those offenses which are rather obviously wrong, whether ‘criminal,’ and which so seriously threaten the order of the political society as to make pestilent and dangerous the continuance in power of their perpetrator.”

Lawmakers laid a trap. In February 1867, they overrode Johnson’s veto of the Tenure of Office Act, which required the Senate’s consent for the president to fire and replace identified executive branch officers, including the secretary of war — at that time Edwin Stanton, a strong advocate of U.S. military occupation of the South. On Feb. 21, 1868, Johnson removed Stanton, who refused to leave his office even to go home or to Cabinet meetings.

.. if impeached, Johnson’s successor would have been Ohio’s Benjamin Wade — the Senate’s president pro tempore — who was, to put it mildly, unsuited for the presidency. (For years, he dared challengers to attack him in the Senate, having prominently placed two loaded pistols on his desk when he came into the chamber.)

Trump Fired His Most Effective Lieutenant

The outgoing attorney general did more to enact the president’s priorities than any other member of the Cabinet, but that didn’t save him from White House hostility.

The paradox of Jeff Sessions’s tenure as attorney general is that no member of the Trump administration was so beleaguered and disparaged by President Trump, but no member got as much done.

Even as he endured persistent verbal abuse from the president, Sessions steamed forward on a range of conservative social-policy priorities, aggressively reorienting the Justice Department’s stances on immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice, among other issues. In an administration plagued by incompetent and ineffective figures, Sessions was a paragon of efficacy—a distinction that horrified his many opponents, but did nothing to win Trump’s trust or affection.
  • When it came time for Trump to pull the plug on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, as he had promised he would during the 2016 campaign, the president got cold feet, but Sessions was happy to be the public face of the withdrawal. It was Sessions who
  • tried to follow through (unsuccessfully) on Trump’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities. It was Sessions who issued new guidance to immigration judges. And, most prominent, it was Sessions who
  • went to the border to announce the Trump administration’s decision to separate migrant children from their parents.
Sessions openly said the plan to split families up was intended to deter migrants, even as other administration officials said otherwise. The policy was met with widespread and appropriate horror, and Trump eventually pulled back—but he had backed the plan before that, and Sessions had followed through.
.. But these weren’t just Sessions’s pet issues. They were Trump’s as well. Hardline immigration policies, giving police free rein, fighting phantom voter fraud—these were all signature Trump projects. Sessions had been the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump, and Trump took from him a range of policy concepts—especially on immigration—as well as a top adviser, Stephen Miller.
But Sessions’s stewardship of those projects didn’t return him to favor with Trump, who, according to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, called Sessions “mentally retarded” and a “dumb Southerner.”
.. When McGahn’s departure was announced in August, I wrote that he’d been the most effective person in the West Wing, through his stewardship of judicial appointments. But Trump disliked and distrusted McGahn, and seemed eager to have him gone.
.. Of course, the same issue poisoned both Sessions’s and McGahn’s relationships with Trump: the Russia investigation, and especially Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s takeover of it.
.. Trump was angry that neither man had protected him. He raged at Sessions’s lack of “loyalty” and complained that Attorney General Eric Holder had “totally protected” Barack Obama. (What he meant by that is unclear.) He twice instructed McGahn to fire Mueller, and McGahn twice refused, once threatening to resign.
.. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker assumes control of Mueller’s probe. Whitaker was outspokenly critical of the special counsel’s inquiry before joining the administration, so Trump may now have a leader of the Justice Department who is more pliable on the Mueller front. But the president is unlikely to find an attorney general who will do as much to move his priorities forward as Sessions did—and the new attorney general will come into the job knowing that loyalty and efficacy aren’t enough to garner favor with Trump.