LISTEN: "They probably are going to find impeachable offenses," predicts professor on Donald Trump

Salon talks to Allan Lichtman about "The Case for Impeachment," Trump, Russia and what could come next

By Matthew Rozsa

Published May 24, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Allan Lichtman; Donald Trump   (AP/Seth Perlman/Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Photo montage by Salon)
Allan Lichtman; Donald Trump (AP/Seth Perlman/Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Photo montage by Salon)

Allan J. Lichtman, a professor at American University, has successfully predicted the outcome of every U.S. presidential election since 1984, albeit somewhat complicated in the years when there was a popular/electoral college split. Yes, that includes Donald Trump’s victory in 2016. Now, he’s predicting Trump’s impeachment.

In his book “The Case for Impeachment,” Licthman argues that Trump shouldn’t be impeached because of his politics or his unconventional style, but rather that impeachment should only proceed when there is such an abuse of power by the president that it threatens our society itself. Lichtman says several of Trump’s actions fit this bill.

Salon sat down recently with Lichtman to discuss the history of presidential impeachment, Trump’s actions in question, and how he thinks it could all play out.

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Can you break down the process of impeachment?

First of all, the framers put impeachment into the Constitution quite advisedly as the ultimate safeguard of our democracy. It was a constitutional, orderly and peaceful process for removing a rogue president or another federal official, unlike the way rulers removed in their own time by assassination or revolution. Impeachment was advisedly put not in the courts but in the Congress, in an elected body. It’s not a legal process. It doesn’t require commission of a crime. It’s rather a combined legal, political and moral judgment on the part of the U.S. House [of Representatives].

The U.S. House by majority vote can charge articles of impeachment against a president, but a president is not removed just by those charges. If articles of impeachment are voted, the case moves on to the U.S. Senate where the president is tried with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court presiding, and it takes a two-thirds vote of the members of the Senate present to convict and remove a president; but if a president is removed, he’s then subject to all normal criminal penalties.

No president has ever been convicted. Two presidents have been impeached; Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. One president, Richard Nixon, resigned in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.

In 1974. Let’s go back to Andrew Johnson though, because you were discussing how a president doesn’t necessarily need to face criminal charges in order to be impeached. But historians generally regard the Andrew Johnson impeachment as being a travesty, because the law that he broke was an unconstitutional one. He had fired Secretary of State Edwin Stanton who was being insubordinate, and most scholars would agree that as the Executive he had the prerogative to do precisely that; the law constraining him was unconstitutional. That’s an example of an illegitimate impeachment. Now with Donald Trump, would you say that there are stronger grounds for impeachment?

First of all, let me say there’s no such thing as an illegitimate impeachment, because the judgment of the U.S. House of Representatives is final. There’s no appeal, there’s no higher standard on which the judge — and of course we can debate whether or not Andrew Johnson should have been impeached. The argument for his impeachment is not so much that he violated this law which you quite correctly say later on was . . . declared unconstitutional. It was that he was blocking the Reconstruction process, the integration of freed slaves into American life. After he was impeached, he moderated that, but that’s a —

I would say that it’s important to make a distinction between . . . you don’t want to just start impeaching presidents because you disagree with them in terms of policy. That sets a dangerous precedent.

Oh, absolutely not.

While I personally think Johnson’s Reconstruction policies were appalling and I would have been a radical Republican had I lived in that era, that doesn’t justify impeaching him, because the law that he broke existed to unconstitutionally confine his actions. With Trump, this is not an Andrew Johnson. 

Absolutely not.

I was hoping you could shed some light on why the case for impeaching Donald Trump needs to be distinguished from, say, the partisan politics that occurred in Andrew Johnson’s era.

Very good point and in my book “The Case for Impeachment,” I make it clear that Trump should not be impeached because he’s unconventional, because you don’t like his style or because [you] disagree with his policies. I disagree with a lot of policies of presidents. But I've never written a book before on the case for impeachment.

I quote the great expositor of the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton, in the case for impeachment. It points out impeachment should only proceed when there is such a severe abuse of power by the president that it threatens the society itself. That is, it threatens our Constitution, our freedoms, our liberty and our national security. As I point out in the book, there are ample grounds not necessarily to write articles of impeachment today, but to begin an impeachment investigation of President Trump for very serious transgressions that do fit within what the framers understood to be the ambit of impeachment.

First of all, there are conflicts of interest. The framers also put into our Constitution something very important called the Emoluments Clause, which says if you’re the president, you should not be taking anything of value from a foreign power, their agents or their entities. This was important, because the framers were very worried about the financial corruption of a president, and of course Trump has not divested his economic interest. He may have turned day to day management over to his kids, but he benefits from every single transaction of his businesses. Already he’s likely at least crashed into the Emoluments Clause because as president, for example, he’s taken final approval for some 38 potentially lucrative trademarks from China.

Secondly, of course there is the still pending issue of possible collusion between the Trump team and Russia’s reprehensible attack on the foundations of our democracy. If there was such collusion and Trump knew about it, that in fact is arguably a serious federal crime. It’s called misprision of treason, the failure to report treasonous activities. Heaven forbid, if Trump himself was in any way involved with this attack — and it was an attack — on the United States, he himself could be charged with treason.

I would like to interject quickly to bring up something that you weren’t able to write in your book, because despite your very effective 13 Keys to the Presidency, so you could argue that you had staked claim to the title of prophet, you weren’t able to prophecy his firing of James Comey, the FBI director. Let’s discuss that and how that could also intersect with an impeachment case.

That’s a third ground for impeachment. We’re getting pretty heavily into this just four months into the administration. The impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee of Richard Nixon didn’t come but after more than five years of his presidency. The firing of James Comey could arguably be considered obstruction of justice if indeed it turns out he fired him to somehow sidetrack the Russian investigation.

I don’t mean to interrupt, but this is something that I think a lot of Americans find frustrating. He has said that he was frustrated with Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation. He wanted it wrapped up. Comey wasn’t handling this the way that he wanted Comey to handle it and so he fired him for that reason. Just to go back even further, you mentioned whether Trump actively wanted Russia to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign. He said, he publicly said, that “I hope that the Russians find those emails and publish those emails.” At what point does the president openly admitting that this is what he wants matter? When do his own words actually carry legal consequences?

His own words should carry legal consequences. I was going to make the point. He probably didn’t quite as explicitly say, as you’d said, that he fired Comey to derail the Russian investigation, but I think there’s probable cause for that when you combine it with other things that the administration has done. For example, not firing General Flynn after getting a clear warning from the acting Attorney General that he was compromised by the Russians and posed a threat to National Security, after this ham-handed White House connivance with Representative Nunes to derail the Congressional House investigation. There’s enough there. I’m not a lawyer, but lawyers call it the “totality of circumstances.”

I think they have probable cause that he is guilty of obstruction of justice and that would be a third ground for justifying an impeachment investigation, and of course the point you made about his being the only president in history to invite a foreign power to meddle into our democracy strengthens the reasons why we also need an impeachment investigation into collusion with the Russians.

Now I want to address the elephant in the room, pun intended: the fact that the Republican Party is in control, both the House and the Senate. It’s going to be very difficult for the House Judiciary Committee, which is controlled by Republics, to find the political impetus to impeach a president from their own ranks. How do we get past this?

An excellent question. This never happened before, but one of the Lichtman rules of politics is the first requisite of an incumbent is survival. Every member of the House is up  [for reelection] in 2018. If Republicans come to believe that Donald Trump is a liability to their reelection . . . and we’re not talking about Republicans in the safe districts. We’re talking about 23 Republicans sitting in districts won by Hillary Clinton and several dozen others in vulnerable districts. If they feel that Donald Trump is putting in jeopardy their reelection and they'd be better off without him, they could turn against him.

It only takes some two dozen Republicans, as I point out in the case for impeachment, to join with Democrats to get a House majority — that’s only 10 percent of Republicans in the House.

I say to Donald Trump, you should welcome an impeachment investigation because you’ve claimed you’ve never done anything wrong. Well, if so, you should welcome an investigation to clear up the thunderclouds hanging over your administration. You should encourage every member of your campaign team and all relevant members of your administration to testify under oath and you should release every document. If there are any presidential tapes, release those as well.

What’s holding up Republicans is pretty crass partisanship at this point. They haven’t come to that tipping point of believing that they’re better off politically with getting rid of Donald Trump; but boy, you can see those clenched jaws on the part of some Republicans. It’s getting harder and harder to defend this president as serious possibly impeachable transgressions pile up.

So what can we as American citizens do to change the way the Republican party is approaching the situation?

Impeachment will only really happen if the American people demand it. That ultimately members of the House — they call it the People’s House — will be responsive to the people. We’ve seen all this energy directed against Donald Trump; many millions of Americans and people around the world demonstrating and protesting. It would be like smoke through a chimney unless it’s directed to one of two specific ends: an electoral goal of changing the composition of the Congress in 2018, and then if the transgressions are serious enough, the goal of impeachment. That means doing things like having marches and demonstrations organized around impeachment, setting up and signing petitions, speaking out at town hall meetings, emailing, writing and visiting your members of Congress.

We’re going to turn away for a moment from discussing logistics of impeachment, and historical cases preceding Trump in which presidents were or could have been impeached. There is a point that I think needs to be raised here. There have been many presidents about whom there were people discussing possible impeachment: John Tyler, Ulysses Grant. It never happened, and so the question I have for you is do you think regardless of whether it should happen, that it will happen in the case of Donald Trump?

I do think it will happen. I think there’s enough there that they probably are going to find impeachable offenses. Whether you’ll get a conviction from a Senate is much harder, because that requires a two-thirds vote. And let’s not discount the possibility that Donald Trump takes the Richard Nixon route, [saying] “I don’t need all this aggravation.” If he resigns the presidency, it’s not as if he goes to some shack in the woods. He goes back to his billionaire lifestyle. He can claim, “Look, I prevented Hillary Clinton from the Presidency. I gave you Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. I’ve done all these great things, and I’ve resigned for the good of the country and I still got my Twitter phone."

I’m going to close with this question, because if Trump resigns or is impeached, either one, the President of the United States will be — insert sigh here — Mike Pence. The last time a president found himself in this position, the only other time a president found himself in this position, the man was Gerald Ford, and although he made mistakes, he was certainly a man of a relatively moderate ideological mindset and of a certain degree of personal integrity. How do you see Mike Pence comparing to Gerald Ford?

Well, here’s the rub and I’m going to go way against the conventional wisdom on this. Mike Pence has gotten the ultimate free pass from the media. He has lied. Let’s not call it lies. Let’s just say he has spread falsehoods time and time again to the American people, most blatantly about the Comey firing and General Flynn’s talking to the Russian Ambassador about sanctions. There are other times, for example saying he didn’t know anything about General Flynn taking foreign payments when in fact he was the head of the transition team at the time when that was widely reported. Somehow this guy who’s served for years in the Congress and was governor of Indiana is being fooled all the time. Well, maybe so, but I think an impeachment investigation has also got to look at Mike Pence. He may or may not have been involved in those. We don’t know and this free pass from the media is based on nothing. It’s based on supposition.

You’re saying Gerald Ford versus Mike Pence: Ford better, Pence worse?

Perhaps so, and maybe not even Pence. You got then Paul Ryan. The political calculations are very complicated here.

After that would be Orrin Hatch, if I’m correct?


Then after that it would be Rex Tillerson.

The political calculations are not great for Democrats no matter how you cut it, but you’ve got to let the chips fall where they may here.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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