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Impeachment: the Law, Politics and Faith

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Guest Column By Julia Stronks

If you are paying attention to the news you know that Congress and President Trump are talking about impeachment. Most know that impeachment is related to the Constitution, and some know that this conversation is somehow connected to President Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But, if you are like the people I’m in contact with, the detail beyond these facts is murky. I’d like to help.

The next several months will require us to differentiate between and among the Constitution, the political landscape and our own moral sensibilities about how power is used. I’ll address each separately.

The Constitution

The impeachment of a president occurs when the House of Representatives votes with a simple majority finding that the president has committed one of the following: treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors. The House votes articles of impeachment—this is the legal charge. Then the Senate holds a trial and determines whether there is sufficient evidence to convict. It takes a two-thirds majority for conviction. If the Senate does vote to convict on the impeachment charges then the president would be removed from office. Both the House and the Senate have their own procedural rules about how to carry out their duties. Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court would preside over the trial in the Senate.

With respect to President Trump one question is whether his engagement with the Ukrainian president rises to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” This phrase, unfortunately, is murky because the Constitution does not define it. So we have to rely on history to see what actions fall into the category. Most scholars today agree that at a minimum these two things count: lying under oath and abusing the power of the Office of the President. These can be somewhat political charges and the framers of the Constitution knew that.  That’s why they structured the impeachment process to be one that could only succeed if legislators in both parties were on board. In fact, there have been only two presidents that were charged by the House of Representatives, and in both cases the Senate failed to convict them (Andrew Johnson, 1868 and William Jefferson Clinton, 1998).

That’s the constitutional, legal process. Next we have to talk about whether is it politically wise for Congress to proceed.

Politics

Democrats in Congress have been calling for a movement to impeach President Trump over the last several years. The political question is this: under what circumstances should a Democratic controlled House of Representatives bring an impeachment charge?

Given that the Senate tries the case, the House has to weigh these factors:

  1. has the president committed an act that arguably rises to the level of high crimes and misdemeanors;
  2. if so, is there sufficient evidence such that a Senate that is dominated by Republicans would be persuaded by two-thirds vote to convict the president?
  3. if not, what are the risks involved given that we are coming to an election year?

If we find out that President Trump told Ukrainian President Zelensky that funds Ukraine expected to receive would not be delivered unless Zelensky investigated Trump’s political opponents, then abuse of power will have occurred. That would be “high crimes and misdemeanors.” But, the evidence on this issue is not in. There is a “whistle-blower complaint” that suggests this might have happened but we do not know anything for sure. It’s this issue that the Democrats in the House of Representatives are focusing on, and they are trying to lock down exactly what happened.

Some people in Washington D.C. are saying that Republicans, behind closed doors, agree that this sort of abuse of power would be impeachable. But for the Democrats in the House there is a big risk in proceeding. We are moving toward an election year in 2020. If the House votes articles of impeachment and the Senate does not convict the president, the Democrats will hand President Trump a gift. And President Trump will use this gift to argue that Democrats are clearly abusing power themselves. Supporters of President Trump will turn out in droves in the next election and I believe President Trump would be re-elected. Both Presidents Nixon and Clinton were re-elected in the midst of conversation about their impeachable acts.

On the other hand, today’s situation is a little different. For Nixon and Clinton there was only discussion about impeachment during the election. The charges occurred after they were re-elected. Today, if President Trump were to be charged with impeachable offenses by the House before the up-coming election but trial by the Senate were to occur after the election it’s possible that the impending trial would encourage Democrats in the electorate to turn out. It’s just not clear how the politics of the impeachment process would impact the election.

And that brings us to the final question. Should the politics matter? Where do faith and values fit in when we are talking about the impeachment of a president?

This is a tough one. It’s easy for President Trump’s supporters to say this is all political and it should stop. It is easy for President Trump’s detractors to say he clearly should be impeached for something. The timing of this impeachment conversation makes it impossible to purge the politics from the decision.

I think that the political process works best when the Constitution is adhered to. There are problems with our Constitution and over the last two hundred years many people have been left out of a concern for justice and equitable treatment in politics. But, even with all its problems I believe in the Constitution. I do so because as a Christian, I agree with Founding Father James Madison. He said that men are not angels and all humans will abuse power. That’s why he argued for Constitutional tools like separation of powers and federalism and impeachment processes that take both houses of Congress and a Supreme Court Justice to implement. The Constitution breaks apart power so that it is hard for one political perspective to gain control over everything. With these concerns I am inclined to say that my own moral compass calls for impeachment processes to proceed when there is credible evidence that high crimes and misdemeanors have occurred. Impeachment is part of the separation of powers and it helps us manage abuse of power.

But, truthfully, if I were in the House of Representatives I would not vote for impeachment charges unless the evidence of abuse of power was so clear I could not possibly turn away from it. The politics of impeachment is tough to control and tough to predict. I’d like this next election to be a referendum on the last several years. With an impeachment charge in the mix I do not see a way for the election to be about issues of war, violence, poverty, immigration, finances, jobs, debt, health care and so forth. Those are the issues related to the justice that faith points us toward. That’s where I’d like us to focus for the next twelve months.

I’m interested to hear what the rest of you think.

Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks
Julia Stronks practiced law and is a professor of political science at Whitworth University in Spokane. She writes about faith, law and public policy. Her most recent book, written with her mother Gloria Goris Stronks, Professor emeritus of Calvin College, is "Teaching to Faith, Citizenship and Civic Virtue" (Resources Publications: Wipf and Stock, 2014). Her discussion of President Trump and the Constitution can be found in the last chapter of Ron Sider’s new book "The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity" (Cascade Books, 2020).

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