Story by Bridget Gibley, Culture Editor
Photo courtesy of pexels.com
On Tuesday, September 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump. The impeachment inquiry was announced in response to a whistleblower complaint of a phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that appeared to find President Trump pressuring President Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, who is now one of the most likely candidates to be selected to run against President Trump in the 2020 election.
Since the last U.S. President to undergo impeachment proceedings was Bill Clinton, in 1998, it’s worthwhile to look at the impeachment process and what might happen.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the House of Representatives can draw up articles of impeachment and vote on them. If the articles pass, the president is considered impeached but does not lose his office at that stage. The Senate holds a trial to decide on conviction, which needs a supermajority of 67 to pass.
Dr. Molly Patterson, Aquinas Professor of Political Science, pointed out that, historically, “we have never been through the whole thing.” Both Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached by the House but not convicted by the Senate, and Richard Nixon resigned before a conviction could be made.
Currently, we are still in the very early stages of the impeachment process. The inquiry has been announced, and now the House of Representatives is conducting an investigation to see whether they want to draw up articles of impeachment. Even if the House finds grounds for impeachment, a) the House can decide that it would be a bad political decision for them to impeach and b) The Senate is under no constitutional obligation to proceed with the trial even if the House impeaches.
Dr. Patterson addressed the whistleblower complaint in the context of studies of political science. One of the key concepts of political science is the idea of sovereignty— A sovereign nation is expected to be left alone to conduct its internal affairs. Other nations are expected to respect each other’s sovereignty. And, Dr. Patterson emphasizes, “the President of the United States is first and foremost a caretaker of the sovereignty of the country.” This whistleblower complaint is significant, then, because pressuring a foreign country to interfere in a U.S. election violates the concept of protecting American sovereignty.
Looking at the events of the past several years, it is noteworthy that this was the complaint that launched the impeachment inquiry. Dr. Patterson mentioned that this issue has echoes of the 2016 election and a foreign government influencing U.S. elections. Why now? Pelosi, as a veteran Congressperson, is well aware of the political ramifications of impeachment. In 1998, when Bill Clinton was impeached by a Republican House, the impeachment proceedings cost Republicans politically; Republicans lost seats in the House in the 1998 midterms because the American people were not pleased with the impeachment inquiry. Dr. Patterson pointed out that Pelosi, who won her re-election race that same year, is well aware that “People don’t like impeachment: it’s messy, it’s complicated, it’s hard to understand.”
Keeping this in mind, Dr. Patterson also warned against viewing this impeachment inquiry as only a partisan action on the part of the Democrats. She said, “There is every possibility that an impeachment inquiry helps Trump get reelected. When people see this as a political move, they don’t realize that it’s actually a really risky one for the Democrats.”
The impeachment proceedings are technically nonpartisan, but it is also important to note that there is going to be a political side to them, based on the Democrats’ actions and the Republicans’ responses to an impeachment. Dr. Patterson noted, “Even when one is trying their level best to be nonpartisan and fair, there is no way that this is not playing out in a very polarised and political situation.”
However the impeachment plays out, Dr. Patterson explained her takeaway as: “What is happening with Donald Trump is really important, but it’s also important to not just focus on Trump and to attend to the work of building a strong, educated citizenry that is invested in self-government and has the skills and the desire to use information to have genuine conversations across disagreements, to value some sort of common good and common life.”