Removing a US President: Constitution in Crisis

Posted on 1/12/2021 12:11:38 PM

Since the January 6 events in Washington, DC, there has been much talk about removing President Donald Trump from office, even though he is set to leave on January 20. Two faculty members from IUP’s Department of Political Science, David Chambers and Gwen Torges, recently lent their expertise to the discussion.

David Chambers

David Chambers

  • Bachelor’s Degree,  Political Science, Idaho State University
  • Master’s Degree, Public Administration, Idaho State University
  • Doctoral Degree, American Public Policy, University of Illinois at Urbana

Courses Taught

  • PLSC 300/500 Research Methods
  • PLSC 350/550 The Presidency
  • PLSC 355/555 Intergovernmental Relations
  • PLSC 666 Public Policy Analysis
  • PLSC 671 Seminar in Public Administration

Gwen Torges

Gwen Torges

  • Bachelor’s Degree, Communications, California State-Fullerton
  • Master’s Degree, Political Science, University of Arizona
  • Doctoral Degree, Political Science, University of Arizona

Classes Taught

  • PLSC 111 American Politics
  • PLSC 250 Public Policy
  • PLSC 358/558 Judicial Process
  • PLSC 359/559 Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties
  • PLSC 405 Sexuality and the Law

It appears the House of Representatives is trying to impeach President Trump. How does that work?

Chambers: Impeachment is the formal charging of a president with high crimes and misdemeanors. If the House votes to impeach the president, it then moves to the Senate for trial. It is at that stage that the president is either convicted or absolved. At that point, Trump could already be out of office, but [the Senate] still could hold the trial.

The House impeached Trump once before, in 2019, but the Senate absolved him. What’s different now?

Chambers: They want to use his speech [on January 6] to the crowd before the violence at the Capitol [to charge him with] inciting violence against the government of the United States. The House Democrats will introduce an impeachment resolution. In all likelihood, some members of the Republican Party will join in. If the House introduces the article of impeachment, it will almost certainly pass. And that is a powerful statement, because it will be the first time in our history that a president has been impeached twice. It might also be viewed as a stern warning to future occupants of the office that they must be mindful of their rhetoric. There are equal doses of symbol and substance here.

The 25th Amendment has been mentioned as another way to remove President Trump. Section 4 allows the vice president, along with the cabinet, to take power from the president if they believe it is warranted. Would that be the end of the Trump presidency?

Torges: The minute they submit that document to Congress, [Vice President Mike] Pence would assume the duties of the presidency. The president could appeal it, but while he is doing that, he’d be out of commission.

Section 4 has never been invoked against a sitting president. How likely is it to happen?

Chambers: I think we would both agree that there is no likelihood that the 25th Amendment will be invoked. I don’t think there’s any enthusiasm for doing that on the part of the vice president, and you’ve also got a cabinet that’s in a state of disarray. Also, once you do something, then it becomes all too easy to do it the next time. I think a lot of people are pausing and thinking that if we take this extraordinary step, are we then opening the door to more frequent use of it down the road? That is to say, if a president acts in a way that I think is inappropriate, that I may call crazy, is that justification for his removal? So, I think there are some legitimate concerns about using it.

Torges: I give it slightly more of a chance than David does, because it would strip Trump of power long enough that he wouldn’t have time to effectually challenge it. He could challenge it, but nothing would happen, because he can be blocked from reassuming office for up to 21 days. So, if Pence knows of something else that Donald Trump has up his sleeve that’s anything like [the events of January 6], I think Pence might do it. It really all depends on him, because he’d be the one who would have to organize it.

Another possibility would be for Trump to resign. How likely is that?

Chambers: The only time a president has resigned is when he was confronted with the insurmountable reality that he would be convicted if his impeachment went to the Senate. Barry Goldwater led a contingent of Republicans to the White House and said to [President Richard] Nixon, “You will be convicted on at least one of these impeachment articles and probably more.” What resulted in Nixon’s resignation is that he could see the handwriting on the wall. There is no handwriting on the wall for Trump.

Why not just let Trump finish his term and be gone?

Torges: In light of [January 6]... , you know, he can still break things on the way out. There are two reasons to try to do something to get him out. One is that he has encouraged his followers to commit all kinds of mischief. The other is we don’t want to set a precedent that anything goes and that there are no ramifications other than shame.

There has been talk that Trump could pardon himself. Would that make all of this go away?

Chambers: No president has ever pardoned himself. But if he does, it covers only federal crimes. That’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for state-level crimes.


Note: This is the first story in the series Constitution in Crisis, about constitutional topics currently in the news. Watch for the second installment, “Trump, Twitter, and Freedom of Speech” on Friday.