Impeachment of US president

Since the USA has a bicameral legislature comprising the House of Representatives and the Senate, the president will not be unseated unless both chambers approve the impeachment

The impeachment proceedings of US President Trump are inching forward. In the latest development the defence team of the president has levelled counter allegations against the Democratic Party. The defence team is accusing the Democrats of trying to undermine the 2016-election results by removing President Trump from his office.

As in most other countries, it is primarily the accusers’ responsibility to prove their allegations. While the accused have a right to defend themselves, they don’t need to prove themselves innocent. It is interesting to note that in the 230-year constitutional history of the USA it is only the third time that an attempt is being made to unseat a president through impeachment. Let’s have a quick look at what it means to be impeached. Impeachment is the process of presenting charges against a sitting president to the elected representatives.

There was talk of bringing such charges against President Farooq Leghari of Pakistan in 1997; but, he decided to resign before any charges could be presented in the parliament. In 2008, General Musharraf did the same. In the USA, to unseat a president the charges should be of a very serious nature such as treason or bribery. An impeachment can be initiated if some major unlawful activities are believed to have been committed by the president. In countries that have a bicameral legislative parliament, both houses must approve the impeachment before a president can be unseated.

Since the USA has a bicameral legislature comprising the House of Representatives (somewhat like Pakistan’s National Assembly) and the Senate or the upper house, the president will not be unseated unless both chambers approve the impeachment. Usually, an impeachment begins in the lower house i.e. the House of Representatives where the process of impeachment is initiated by a simple majority. Then it goes to the Senate where a two-thirds majority is needed to approve the president’s removal. That has never happened in the US history. Before Trump, two American presidents have faced impeachment.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton was charged with perjury and hindering the process of justice. He had developed illicit relations with a junior colleague, Monica Lewinsky, and then lied about it. When the lie was exposed he had to apologise but he did that after a lot of embarrassing details had surfaced. In 1998, an impeachment process was initiated by the House of Representatives with simple majority. In 1999, when the matter reached the Senate it could not garner two-thirds majority and the impeachment failed. President Clinton completed his tenure with still a high approval rating in the public.

The president who faced impeachment before Clinton was — contrary to common perception — not Richard Nixon; he had opted to resign before his impeachment in 1974. It was President Andrew Johnson who faced this ordeal in the 1860s. Interestingly, in the American history there have been two Presidents Johnson with a break of exactly a 100 years: Andrew Johnson and President Lyndon B Johnson. Both were not elected presidents but vice-presidents who were constitutionally promoted at the death of the president. Andrew Johnson was the running mate of Abraham Lincoln and became vice-president in March 1865.

When President Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865, Andrew Johnson took the presidential oath. Similarly, in 1963 President John F Kennedy was assassinated and Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson became president. The impeachment against Andrew Johnson also failed and he completed his four-year term; though he won just by one vote in the Senate thanks to the Republican majority.

Almost the same is likely to happen in President Trump is case. During the impeachment proceedings in the Senate, White House lawyer Pat Cipollone has been trying to whitewash President Trump by saying that he has not committed any crime.

A major charge against Trump is that he has misused his authority. In July 2019, it was revealed that a telephone call was made to the President of Ukraine to induce him to open an investigation against Jo Biden; a likely presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential election.

A major charge against Trump is that he has misused his authority and has also hindered the work of the Congress. In July 2019, it was revealed that a telephone call was made to the President of Ukraine to induce him to open an investigation against Jo Biden; a former VP with President Obama, and a likely presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in the 2020 presidential election. Trump has all along denied that he ever tried to use the President of Ukraine against Jo Biden. Another allegation is that Trump tried to make the visit of the Ukrainian president to the US, conditional on the investigations against Biden.

That would mean if the president of Ukraine wanted to visit the US, he had to agree to a political favour to Trump. The president of Ukraine has categorically denied that such pressure was exerted on him. Naturally, if he accepts the charges, he himself would be putting his reputation at stake. Last week, Trump’s defence team wrote a letter in which the impeachment was called an attack on the people of America who had elected Trump as president. The six-page letter outlines counteraccusations against the Democratic Party.

At the moment, the Democratic Party has a majority in the House of Representatives. Trump’s legal team includes some members who were also involved in investigations against President Clinton. The recent investigation against Trump was initiated in September 2019 and by November 2019 its initial phase was completed. On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives had approved that the impeachment go forward. A major player in the process is Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell who has been leading the Republican Party in Senate since 2015. Earlier, he was Senate minority leader for eight years from 2007 to 2015.

McConnell has been a Senator for 35 years (since 1985). Another important person is Chuck Grassley who is president pro tempore of the USA, meaning he is the second highest ranking official of the Senate. Constitutionally, American vice-president is the head of the Senate. The 87-year old Grassley has been in the Senate for 40 years. Then there is Chief Justice of America, Justice John Roberts, who was appointed chief justice at the age of 50 by President George W Bush in 2005. In the USA, it is the president’s prerogative to appoint chief justice who needs to be approved by the Senate.

Normally, the Senate approves the presidential nominee. In such appointments there is no consideration of seniority as in the presence of more senior judges a relatively junior judge may be appointed as chief justice. There is no age limit for a chief justice to serve and some chief justices have served for as long as 25-30 years. In the 230-year constitutional history of the USA there have been only 17 chief justices, and many have died in service. There are few examples of a chief justice has resigning or retiring.

Another interesting point is that there have been just four chief justices in the past 70 years, all of them appointed by Republican presidents i.e. Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush Junior. No Democratic president has had an opportunity to nominate a chief justice sine Harry Truman in the 1940s. In comparison if we look at Pakistan, we have had 27 CJs in the past 70 years. The main reason for that is the retirement age of 65 and that now only the senior-most judge can become the CJ.

During the Trump’s impeachment, CJ John Roberts will be serving as the presiding officer. He will be aided by parliamentarian Elizabeth Macdonough. In addition there will be seven house managers who will work as prosecution lawyers. The White House will have its counsel and a defence team of Republicans in the Congress. The defence team of President Trump also includes Ken Starr and Robert Ray who were involved in the investigation against President Clinton. In all likelihood the impeachment of President Trump will not be successful in unseating him.


The writer is an analyst and educator, based in Islamabad. [email protected]


Impeachment of US president Donald Trump