In his Feb. 9 column, “What has impeachment achieved?”, columnist Brett Abbott asks captivating questions about Congressional Democrats’ attempt to remove President Trump from office. Following his acquittal, it is fair to ask why would Democrats even attempt to impeach Trump when removal would be futile?
However, Abbott looks to the wrong sources in answering this question, which led him to draw false conclusions.
While Abbott grapples with the direct political effects of Trump’s impeachment, he fails to contextualize impeachment’s intended function in American government. This is found in the most authoritative source on American law: the Constitution.
Article 2, Section 4 reads: “The President...shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” The language of this section appears straightforward, but the phrase “other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” has been established as a placeholder for reprehensible conduct outside the bounds of treason and bribery that Congress finds should be impeachable. This is the category that Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian officials were placed into.
The ambiguous “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” has actually been used as justification for every presidential impeachment attempt in American history. Presidents Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were all indicted under this provision rather than the less vague offenses of “Treason” or “Bribery,” leaving more room for Congress’s discretion. Additionally, no presidential impeachment attempt has ever resulted in removal from office, even under less partisan governments of the past.
The ambiguous justification for impeachment charges under Article 2, Section 4 in combination with lack of removal indicate that perhaps presidential impeachment as we know it was never meant to actually vacate the office. Rather, impeachment has acted as a resounding vote of no confidence with more bite to it than censure.
In this sense, Trump’s impeachment has actually achieved a lot. Trump’s legacy will forever be with those of Johnson, Nixon, and Clinton. But more importantly, Congress has moved to remind the president that his power is not untouchable. Partisanship has much less to do with it than Abbott indicates.
Alex Layton (he/him) is a first-year student at IU Maurer School of Law, and is the communications director for IU Maurer’s chapter of the American Constitution Society.
The American Constitution Society is one of the nation’s leading progressive legal organizations that is dedicated to realizing the promises of the U.S. Constitution.