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How Not to Remove a President

Democrats who want to impeach Trump can learn a lot from the Republicans' failed effort to oust Bill Clinton two decades ago.

Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty

David Axelrod, formerly the chief strategist for President Barack Obama, took issue earlier this month with the Democrats’ simmering desire to remove President Donald Trump from office. “Dems should NOT commit to impeachment unless & until there’s a demonstrable case for one,” he wrote on Twitter. “It is not just a matter of politics. It’s a matter of principle. If we ‘normalize’ impeachment as a political tool, it will be another hammer blow to our democracy.”

That drew a rebuke from Tom Steyer, a liberal billionaire currently bankrolling an aggressive ad campaign urging Americans to rally behind Trump’s impeachment. “Let’s be clear: Trump has already committed 8 impeachable offenses,” he tweeted in response to Axelrod. “What are we waiting for?”

Steyer’s question makes impeachment seem simple and obvious. History proves otherwise. Congress has never removed a president from office, so there’s no clear road map for successfully doing so. But there are lessons from the past about how such efforts can fail.

Andrew Johnson’s impeachment in 1868 took place amid Reconstruction and just after the United States had emerged from a civil war. For all its problems today, modern American politics is nowhere near as tumultuous. President Richard Nixon would’ve almost certainly been impeached by the House and likely convicted by the Senate but for his resignation in 1974. If Trump finds himself in similar circumstances, it’s hard to see him stepping down rather than fighting it out.

That leaves only the case of Bill Clinton, who was impeached by the House for perjury and obstruction of justice and acquitted by the Senate on both counts. That draining, fractious battle two decades ago demonstrates some of the risks for campaigns to oust Trump today.

Clinton’s impeachment was the result of two converging legal sagas. One of them centered around Ken Starr, who served as independent counsel in the mid-1990s. (Unlike a special counsel like Robert Mueller, independent counsels could not be fired by the president.) Starr’s original mandate was to investigate real estate deals made by the Clintons in Arkansas in the 1970s in what was known as the Whitewater scandal. Over time, his investigation expanded to include a host of other scandals that dogged the Clinton administration.

The other saga began with Paula Jones, one of multiple women who have accused Clinton of sexual misconduct over the past four decades. Jones filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against Clinton in 1994 that sparked years of legal battles. While giving a sworn deposition for the lawsuit, Clinton gave meandering, evasive responses to questions about his sexual history and denied any sexual contact with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Starr opened a perjury investigation in which he found that Clinton lied to a federal grand jury about the affair.

Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky sparked a political crisis that rocked the country in 1998. But compared to today, the charges against the former president—lying under oath about his sexual relationship with Lewinsky and obstructing justice by hiding it from investigators—seem almost quaint. Trump’s opponents have accused him of obstructing justice by firing a FBI director who refused to drop an investigation into a close Trump ally and habitually violating the Emoluments Clause by accepting foreign money through his businesses. Mueller is investigating whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

Among those pushing for Trump’s impeachment are Democratic lawmakers and liberal activists who’ve concluded that his removal from office is not only desirable, but necessary. Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe called for Congress to begin the process last May after Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. California Representative Brad Sherman introduced articles of impeachment against Trump last July, citing Comey’s ouster as obstruction of justice.

Some have looked beyond the Comey saga and the Russia investigation to Trump’s overall fitness as president. “Being extremely bad at the job of president of the United States should be enough to get you fired,” Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote last November, explaining that he was partially inspired by Trump’s erratic tweets about North Korea. The New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg argued that Bill Clinton’s impeachment already normalized the process, and that Republicans would almost certainly pushing to remove Hillary Clinton had she won in 2016.

Others on the left aren’t convinced. Politico’s Bill Scher compared the impeachment push to the GOP attempt to repeal Obamacare, which also floundered in Congress last year. The New Republic’s Jeet Heer warned in December that Democrats are better off trying to defeat Trump at the ballot box. “A Democratic agenda of reining in presidential power will give more lasting victories than mere impeachment, which is unlikely to succeed and would only address a symptom, not the cause, of the cancer that’s ravaging American politics,” he wrote.

Heer’s call for removing Trump through the democratic process makes sense, given the public’s low opinion of the president. And it’s a reminder of the key factor that worked against the GOP in 1998: Clinton was a popular president. He was an exceptional communicator who built a rapport with the public that congressional Republicans simply couldn’t match. It helped that he was impeached in the booming economy of the late 1990s, when unemployment was low.

Despite the allegations against Clinton, his support remained high. Opinion surveys taken after the 1998 impeachment found that only one-third of Americans agreed with the move. Moreover, the Times reported, “One day after he became the second president in the nation’s history to be impeached, 72 percent of respondents said they approved of how he was handling his job. Mr. Clinton’s job approval rating actually increased since last week, when it was 66 percent.”

At the same time, congressional Republicans incurred a short-term political cost for their campaign against Clinton. Polls showed movement away from the GOP voters after the release of the Starr report, which laid out the case for impeachment in precise and lurid detail only two months before the 1998 midterm elections. House Democrats eventually captured five seats on Election Day, marking the first time that a president’s party gained seats during the midterms since 1934. Their Senate counterparts managed to topple two incumbent Republican senators.

Trump’s presidency takes place in a more polarized era than the 1990s, making it much harder for any Republican or Democrat to build the broad support that Clinton enjoyed. But Trump is also extraordinarily unpopular in his own right. Public approval of Trump is currently hovering around 40 percent, and his overall ratings since taking office usually fluctuate between 35 percent and 45 percent. He closed out 2017 with the lowest first-year approval ratings of any modern president by almost 10 points.

The intensity of his opposition is also remarkable. Fifty-six percent of Americans disapprove of his presidency, with 46 percent of Americans saying they disapprove strongly. Sixty-one percent said they have an unfavorable view of him personally. A Public Policy Polling survey in March found that 46 percent of Americans want to impeach Trump, while 45 percent of Americans oppose it.

Democrats are currently expected to retake the House in this fall’s midterms, and impeaching a president requires only a majority vote in the House. So Democrats could theoretically impeach Trump along party lines if they flip the chamber. But this would only be the first half of the battle. The decision would then move to the Senate, where a two-thirds votes is needed to convict and remove a president from office.

After the House impeached Clinton in 1998, the Senate spent the first two months of 1999 debating whether or not to remove him from office. Almost immediately it became clear that there weren’t enough votes for removal: 67 senators would need to vote against Clinton on at least one charge in a chamber made up of 55 Republicans and 45 Democrats. When senators acquitted Clinton in February, some moderates said they didn’t think the conduct warranted the removal of the nation’s chief executive.

“I will cast my vote not for the current president, but for the presidency,” Maine Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who voted for acquittal, told the chamber. “I believe that in order to convict, we must conclude from the evidence presented to us with no room for doubt that our Constitution will be injured and our democracy suffer should the president remain in office one moment more.”

By that standard, Trump’s first year in office makes clear that he poses a greater threat to American constitutional democracy than Clinton ever did. But the Senate is less likely to reach 67 votes against him now. Republican senators have been more vocal about criticizing the president than their House counterparts, but those critiques still come from only a minority of the GOP majority. The 2018 map is also highly unfavorable to Democratic hopes of retaking the chamber. If they don’t, it would be up to Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who violated senatorial norms to keep a Supreme Court seat open for Trump to fill in 2016 and whose wife Elaine Chao is currently Trump’s secretary of transportation, to allow a trial to go forward.

Nobody knows what Mueller’s reports to Congress on obstruction of justice and Russian electoral interference will say if he issues them. He may find evidence of collusion so undeniable that even Republican stalwarts vote to remove the president. He may conclude that there was no such thing despite Russia’s best efforts to facilitate it and the Trump campaign’s zeal to bring down Clinton at all costs. Or he may find strong indications that something happened, but not the clear and convincing evidence to prove it.

Until then, Americans can only speculate about the consequences. But the failed effort to remove Clinton in the 1990s suggests that to remove Trump today, Democrats would need the following: charges that are sufficiently grave to warrant removal, the clear support of the American public, enough senators willing to carry it out, and historically low presidential approval ratings. Only one of those factors is in the Democrats’ favor—for now.