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Could Trump be impeached?

What actions might rise to the status of impeachable offense? As President Park’s case shows, the bar is pretty high.
Feb 08,2017
Online betting markets are already offering contracts on the possibility that Donald Trump will not complete his first year in office. Could the U.S. president be impeached as Park Geun-hye was?

As in Korea, impeachment involves both the law and politics. The U.S. Constitution allows for impeachment in cases of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” The 25th Amendment allows for the possibility of removing the president if he is deemed “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” Presumed to handle physical disability, some have argued it could be invoked if the presidency became adequately dysfunctional.

But politics also matters. The House of Representatives has to vote for impeachment and — in contrast to the Korean system — the Senate has to try the case. Given Republican control of both houses, the ruling party would have to splinter and defect, and for a number of reasons, this still appears unlikely.

What actions might rise to the status of “treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors” that could move Trump’s co-partisans to withdraw support? As President Park’s case shows, the bar is pretty high. Impeachment was voted in Korea only on quite compelling evidence that she had ceded authority to Choi Soon-sil and facilitated bribery and corruption.

One possibility is that Trump’s team — or even Trump himself — actively colluded with Russia in the controversial election-related hacks.

Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Vladimir Putin, and this would certainly rise to the level of a treasonous offense. But the evidence to date is hardly convincing. An investigation into the hacks will be an ongoing embarrassment but is unlikely to find a smoking gun.

Conflicts of interest and even corruption are another area likely to plague the president. Although Trump claims he has moved assets into a trust to avoid such conflicts, most ethics lawyers from both parties believe the arrangements are flimsy. His family and a trusted financial confidant will continue to exercise control, and they serve at his behest.

The existence of potential conflicts is very different from a case that reveals harm to national interest. This issue will also be an ongoing line of opposition attack, including through legal cases, but unless an egregious example of self-dealing emerges, these concerns are likely to simmer rather than boil.

The central problem in these impeachment scenarios is that they overlook the advantages the Republican Party sees in having gained control of the presidency and both houses of Congress. Whatever faults Trump may have, legislators have made their Faustian bargain.

They will overlook his many obvious disabilities in the hope that they can secure the party’s legislative objectives, from deregulation and tax reform to unwinding Obamacare and strengthening controls on immigration. The hope is that if they can deliver on these electoral promises, public support for Trump will hold steady or even grow.

Yet there is a quite different way that the presidency could unravel, and it has elements of Park’s downfall in it, too. Many worry not only about Trump’s agenda but also his competence. Trump has been more effective at opposing the status quo than articulating clear alternatives. His recent executive order banning all travel from seven countries and halting the inflow of refugees was poorly designed from the start, and its rollout was utterly chaotic.

Other policy initiatives also face closer scrutiny: the building of a wall with Mexico, increasing border taxes, scrapping insurance for 20 million Americans. Trump’s approval ratings are at historic lows for any incoming president, at about 40 percent. That 40 percent has been very solid, but what if it started to fall, as Park’s did, from generalized discontent with the president’s disruptive management style?

And don’t rule out the possibility of ongoing social protest, which played an important role in tipping legislators in Korea. Nongovernmental organizations have seen an upsurge of support since the election, and there is now even a movement afoot to organize a general strike across the country in opposition to the new administration.

My prediction is that Trump will survive, reined in by the courts, the bureaucracy and the Republicans in the legislature, who desperately want to see a sharper focus on getting things done. And we should not underestimate Trump’s support.

But this prediction does not rule out a chaotic first term until voters have the first chance to render judgment in the midterm elections of 2018. And it does not rule out irreparable harm to the United States in the conduct of its foreign policy. Korea is feeling the uncertainty associated with impeachment, but the U.S. is experiencing plenty of it as well.


*The author is the Krause Distinguished Professor at the Graduate School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California in San Diego. He is the author with Marcus Noland of the Witness to Transformation blog at piie.com/blogs/north-korea-witness-transformation.

Stephan Haggard