I often hear people use the word “impeach” when what they mean is “remove from office,” but impeaching a president and removing him from office are two separate parts of the same process.

Impeachment is a recommendation to remove a president from office and can only occur when the U.S. House of Representatives investigates a president’s conduct and a majority of House members vote that the president’s actions violated the Constitution.

Removing a president from office only occurs, however, when following the House’s recommendation for removal a majority of the Senate votes to convict.

The Senate has never removed a president impeached by the House. The House impeached Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 but the Senate removed neither from office. Had Richard Nixon not resigned, he would have been the first president impeached and removed from office.

Most Democrats, most members of the public, and even some Republicans believe President Donald Trump has committed several impeachable offenses, so the question now is, should Trump be impeached?

Some who believe Trump has committed impeachable offences advocate impeaching him. Others who believe Trump has committed impeachable offenses do not advocate impeaching him — and for two very good historical reasons.

First, after the House impeached Johnson, a Democrat, the Republican-controlled Senate did not remove him from office. Enough Republican senators voted against their party because they believed his successor would be worse than Johnson.

In today’s Republican-controlled Senate, that would hold true again, as enough Democrats would vote to keep Trump in office because they believe Vice President Mike Pence, his successor, would be worse.

Second, after the House impeached Bill Clinton and the Senate refused to remove him, Clinton’s popularity shot up to 73 percent. Had he been able to run again, Clinton most assuredly would have been re-elected.

Today’s Republican-controlled Senate would definitely not remove Trump if the House impeached him now. As a result, Trump’s popularity would soar, and his re-election would be all but assured.

Trump lacks the capacity to restrain himself. If re-elected, without the threat of removal or the tempering effect of having to win another election, Trump would be like, well, Trump on steroids. Those advocating impeaching Trump now would be wise to review the outcomes of impeaching Johnson and Clinton.

Now, the House can investigate Trump’s involvement in any illegal actions by requiring him to release his personal income tax records to the House. They can also require Trump administration officials and associates to release any relevant documents to the House as well. In this way the House will be able to investigate what Trump knew, when he knew it, and what action he took without having to release any information to the public — unless of course the House finds incriminating evidence.

But this direction won’t make Trump’s guilt or innocence crystal clear to politicians and the public. Because most people get their news from partisan sources in our 24/7 news cycle, people get their news in divisive partisan sound bites. These secondhand reports of whatever the House uncovers would not help inform the public and bring us together. Instead these partisan reports will serve to divide us even further.

A more effective way to inform the public would be to hold public hearings similar to the hearings that unequivocally showed Nixon had directed the illegal actions of his administration. With public hearings, everyone can see exactly who said what and draw their own conclusions, free from partisan spin.

The Watergate hearings, prompted by reports of potential “illegal, improper, or unethical activities” about the 1972 presidential campaign, began in 1973. Most Americans watched the hearings, and 67 percent of the public from all political stripes concluded that Nixon had participated in the Watergate coverup. With public and political pressure mounting, Nixon resigned the next year.

The Watergate hearings — which were held under conditions similar to those that exist today, such as intense political division and a high probability of impeachable offenses by the president — were effective in showing Nixon’s involvement. Public hearings now will be equally effective in showing the public the extent to which Trump was complicit in any illegal actions his administration may have taken.

Unfortunately, deciding whether to remove a president with impeachable offenses often depends on the party that controls the Senate. Public hearings will let an informed voting public make that decision in the 2020 election.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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