A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll released Wednesday shows increasing support for impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, but most pro-impeachment respondents also do not appear to think Trump has committed “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
Forty-three percent of respondents supported impeachment, while the plurality, 45 percent, said that impeachment was not necessary. However, the most frequent reason given by those supporting impeachment, at 54 percent, is that President Trump “has proven he is unfit to serve and should be removed from office, regardless of whether he committed an impeachable offense or not.” Only 43 percent actually believe he has committed such an offense. As a matter of historical perspective, according to Rasmussen Research, public support for impeaching former President Barack Obama peaked at 32% in 2014, while support for impeaching George W. Bush peaked at 39% in 2007.
The push for impeachment has gained explicit support from politicians at the far-fringes of the Democratic Party, echoing the impeachment constituency’s indifference to any actual law being broken. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) has made it her signature issue, going so far as to tell MSNBC’s Joy Reid that “I believe this president should be impeached. I don’t care what others say about ‘it’s too soon, we don’t know, we think.’”
Rep. Al Green (D-TC), another far-left Democrat, issued a call for impeachment on the House floor two weeks ago, matching his Californian colleague’s implication that his commitment to impeach Trump is unrelated to any specific indication of criminal wrongdoing. “This is about what I believe. And this is where I stand. I will not be moved. The president must be impeached,” Rep. Green said at that time.
The Constitution specifies the House may impeach and the Senate, with a two-thirds vote, may convict the President and remove him from office for “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The term is not specifically defined in the Constitution, and impeachment is so uncommon the exact parameters of what qualifies have never been fleshed out.
More prominent Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have stopped short of this explicit talk, keeping to general accusations of wrongdoing on the President’s part in the sprawling and specifics-deprived investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 Presidential campaign. He said, for example, during the fracas over FBI Director James Comey’s firing, “We know the director was leading an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians. Serious offense.”
Schumer and others, like Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), who made vague allusions to “obstruction of justice” and a “criminal investigation,” typically avoid any allegation that the President actually committed a specific “high crime or misdemeanor.” Blumenthal, for example, quickly walked back his rhetoric when it prompted a reporter to ask if he thought Trump was under investigation for a crime.
Some legal experts have been very skeptical of the accusations against Trump, categorically saying none of them rise to the level of a crime. Eminent Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, for example, told CNN that even if so-called “collusion” between Trump and the Russians during the election were established, the President still would not be guilty of a crime. He was similarly dismissive of the idea that Trump’s alleged suggestion ex-Director Comey “let this go” with regard to former National Security Advisor Micheal Flynn amounted to obstruction of justice in a legal sense.
Author and professor of constitutional law at Florida International University College of Law Elizabeth Price Foley expressed the same view to the New York Times.
Those poll respondents who thought Trump ought to be impeached regardless of whether he committed a crime, however, may be on to something. A strong current of thought on impeachment is that it is an inherently political act and, as such, can be performed whenever the political will to do so exists. Conservative columnist and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew McCarthy is one proponent of this view, and, during the Obama administration, wrote a book on the topic, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment. In a recent column on the topic, he urged that the mere fact Trump has not been accused of any crime under federal law may not be enough to protect against the rumblings of impeachment:
[I]mpeachment is a political process to remove power; it is not a legal process in the nature of a criminal prosecution. An impeachable offense is a breach of the public trust, not necessarily a crime prosecutable in court. There is no indication that Donald Trump schemed with Russia to corrupt the election process. If ever there were evidence that some president had done such a thing, though, you would not need a prosecutor. You would need Congress to commence impeachment hearings.
McCarthy repeated his view that Trump might be impeached if there was collusion, regardless of whether a crime has been committed, in the pages of the National Review. “The fact that collusive activity would probably not be illegal does not mean it would be appropriate. To my mind, it would be impeachable,” he wrote.
As a practical matter, every actual article of impeachment against a sitting president has involved the alleged breach of federal criminal law, such as bribery in Andrew Johnson’s case or perjury in that of Bill Clinton, and obstruction of justice in the never-voted-on articles against Richard Nixon. Furthermore, as the President’s own party now controls the House, and a two-thirds pro-impeachment majority in the Senate looks far-fetched, impeachment as an expression of political will looks remote.
According to the polling data, however, if Democrats ever do retake the House of Representatives, they may find themselves with a substantial constituency in the public that would support their moves towards impeachment with or without any credible accusation the President actually broke the law.