The President, Vice President and all Civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
— U.S. Constitution, Article II, section 4
Should President Donald J. Trump be impeached?
In open court, Trump’s former lawyer and self-described fixer, Michael Cohen, told a judge Tuesday that he had committed a felony “in coordination with and at the direction of a candidate for federal office … for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”
That would be a conspiracy. And the candidate for federal office? That would be Trump.
So could the president be charged with a crime? (Or, as was the case with President Richard Nixon in 1974, be named as an unindicted co-conspirator?) The official line of the Justice Department is that a sitting president cannot be charged. Many lawyers argue that the Constitution’s only relief is impeachment, a charge made by the U.S. House of Representatives which is followed by a trial in the U.S. Senate.
In 1804, a sitting vice president, Aaron Burr, shot and killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. The state of New Jersey indicted Burr on a murder charge. But the debate in that case largely centered on whether Burr would have to testify. A Justice Department memo written in 2000 put it this way: “It is generally recognized that high government officials are excepted from the duty to attend court in person in order to testify,” and “[t]his privilege would appear to be inconsistent with a criminal prosecution which necessarily requires the appearance of the defendant for pleas and trial, as a practical matter.”
As a practical matter Burr was not tried in office. He later was convicted of a misdemeanor charge of dueling in New York state.
Another vice president, Spiro Agnew, was forced resign after a criminal investigation. He wanted to fight it out, and claimed immunity. But with Nixon facing Watergate, Agnew had no support within the administration. So on October 10, 1973, Agnew resigned his office and on the same day plead nolo contendre to a single count of tax evasion. No contest.
Nixon resigned the next year, on Aug. 4, 1974.
The prospect of a Trump impeachment is complicated by politics. Many Democrats were reluctant to even say the word. But that was before Cohen’s guilty plea and the Tuesday conviction of Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort. Manfort was found guilty by a jury on 8 felony charges, including tax and bank fraud. He faces up to 80 years in prison.
Cohen will serve at least 5 and one-half years in prison. Cohen's attorney told CBS News that if Cohen is guilty of violating campaign finance law, so is the president. "Michael Cohen took this step today so that his family can move on to the next chapter," Lanny Davis said in a statement. "This is Michael fulfilling his promise made on July 2nd to put his family and country first and tell the truth about Donald Trump. Today he stood up and testified under oath that Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn't they be a crime for Donald Trump?"
How will voters judge these convictions and the president’s role? Some 24 million people typed in “impeach” and “Trump” as keywords on a Google search. There are similar trends across social media. So there is plenty of interest.
The conventional wisdom, at least from the media, is that there are too many hurdles to an impeachment. And a conviction by the Senate nearly impossible.
A poll by CNN before the Cohen plea and Manafort conviction found a high percentage of citizens supporting impeachment and conviction, some 42 percent. That compares to the 43 percent who said the same about Richard Nixon in 1974. (And much higher than the 29 percent who supported Bill Clinton’s impeachment.)
But most politicians are cautious.
A spokesman for Speaker of the House Paul Ryan told The Washington Post, “We are aware of Mr. Cohen's guilty plea to these serious charges. We will need more information than is currently available at this point."
Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, a Republican, told The Guardian that “Paul Manafort is a founding member of the DC swamp and Michael Cohen is the Gotham version of the same ... Neither one of these felons should have been anywhere near the presidency.”
And earlier this month, Sharice Davids, Ho Chunk, told the Kansas City Star, that “no president is above the law, and all should always be held accountable for their actions.” She said she would give the special counsel, Robert Mueller, as well as the congressional committees the time to complete their investigations and report “definitive evidence that the standards of impeachment have indeed been crossed.”
But both Democrats and Republicans agree that the topic of impeachment is now a campaign issue for the November election.
Mark Trahant is editor of Indian Country Today. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Follow him on Twitter -@TrahantReports