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What is impeachment and is it likely to happen to Trump?

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Unlike a party leadership change in the Westminster system used in Australia, impeachment in the US is not about handing over power, as much as judging whether the official has abused the power of the office, then taking action if they have. The American system, framed by an 18th-century Constitution, has fixed presidential terms that are generally cut short only by death in office. Impeachment is a remedy for offences, not a transactional change in leadership.

US President Donald Trump.

US President Donald Trump.Credit:AP

Why has impeachment come up again now?

Because of the results of the midterm elections in November, which put a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in January. There is debate about what priority the Democrats should give to a potential impeachment of Trump, a Republican.

What is the mechanism for impeachment?

A simple vote in the House determines whether a president is impeached. It then moves to the Senate for a trial, typically with a Supreme Court justice presiding. A Democrat in the House last year moved a motion to impeach Trump but it was voted down by the majority.

What can a president be impeached for?

Article II, Section 4 of the US Constitution says: “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 Misdemeanours.”

Have US presidents been impeached before?

Yes. But not removed from office. In the aftermath of the Civil War, president Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, was impeached for violating a law passed by a Republican congress to protect a member of his cabinet. More recently Democrat Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice over answers he gave into a wide-ranging probe that centred eventually on his sex life, including with White House aide Monica Lewinsky.

In both of those cases, the presidents were impeached by the House of Representatives but were acquitted by the Senate. So they weren’t removed from office.

Articles of impeachment had been drafted in Congress for Republican president Richard Nixon amid the Watergate scandal but he stepped down from office in 1974 before he could be impeached.

(Watergate, which gave the world the “-gate” suffix to denote a scandal, came to light after paid operatives were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters in 1972. Journalists and, later, investigators uncovered a vast campaign of illegal political operations designed to benefit Nixon and punish his “enemies”. Many people surrounding Nixon were found guilty of crimes or forced to resign in shame. In this way, the possibilities of impeachment is raised in situations that typically involves wrongdoing of a criminal nature.)

What “impeachable” things has Trump done?

Reasons Trump could be impeached include Trump’s alleged acceptance of gifts from foreign powers  such as Gulf states, efforts to obstruct justice by firing former FBI director James Comey, and his unwillingness to defend the Constitution, or the US government itself, by trying to delegitimise parts it for political reasons – for example, accusing the Justice Department and judges of bias, or the intelligence community of plotting against him.

Collusion with Russia to aid Trump in his election would likely factor into impeachment proceedings, as it raises questions about his legitimacy as a candidate. However, the Constitution sets a high bar for “treason”.

Trump has denied everything, even as his circles of advisers have systematically been forced to resign and face prosecution.

Yet expectations that Trump could be impeached have increased with each conviction of a person around him. Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen has been jailed for three years for violating campaign finance law in paying hush money to former Playboy model Karen McDougal to prevent news of Trump’s alleged affair with her from surfacing before the 2016 election.

Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort has been convicted of financial crimes, and Trump’s ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his Russian dealings during election. Manafort’s assistant Rick Gates has been jailed. One-time campaign adviser George Papadopoulous has been jailed. There are others still.

So will Trump be impeached?

Clearly, the ingredients for an impeachment trial potentially exist more than ever before. The lawsuits in the courts challenging Trump will only raise awareness of his ethical issues. At the same time, the Mueller probe into Trump’s alleged ties to Russia continues to reveal new information. But Democrats in the House would likely not vote to impeach Trump if they felt the Senate (controlled by Republicans) was unlikely to convict him. So look for more revelations, or a shift in Republican views on Trump, to alter the equation and potentially trigger an unprecedented impeachment of the president of the United States. If the calculus doesn’t change, impeachment is less likely.

Chris is Digital Foreign Editor at Fairfax Media.

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