How Trump's Inaction on Climate Change Could Lead to Impeachment
The "prediction professor," who has correctly called the last nine presidential elections, thinks that Trump is headed for a fall.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
Since 1984, a history professor named Allan Lichtman has used a set of "keys" to predict presidential elections—a set of 13 true-false statements like, "The economy is not in recession during the election campaign." This rudimentarily system hasn't been wrong in three decades, and it was even correct in 2016 when so many pundits and polls misfired. That track record makes it hard to dismiss his latest project out of hand, even though it sounds crazy as hell: It's a book titled The Case for Impeachment that lays out a case for how and why Donald Trump will get removed from office, which Lichtman sees as an inevitability.
The beginning of the book is like CliffsNotes on the history of presidential impeachment––very helpful for someone like me, a byproduct of Florida public schools. A quick civics lesson for the similarly uninformed: Any member of the House can draft what's known as an article of impeachment, and if a majority of the House votes for those articles, the president is impeached. After that, the Senate puts the president on trial, and if a majority of senators vote guilty, the president is thrown out. There have been three impeachments or near-impeachments in American history, none of which directly resulted in the president being removed. Andrew Johnson's downfall was being headstrong (he was acquitted and remained in office), Richard Nixon's was his paranoia and the need for total control (he resigned before he could be impeached), and Bill Clinton's was the inability to tell the truth on the stand (Clinton, like Johnson, was acquitted by the Senate). Anyone who's been following the news since January can see that Trump displays all three characteristics, often all at once. But will any of the scandals or upsets of the young administration lead to Trump losing the White House?
I called up Lichtman to find out why he thought the answer to that question was yes and how he imagined Trump getting impeached.
VICE: It would take a very long time to go through every possible cause for impeachment in the book, but one that I thought was interesting was the idea of him taking the stand in a civil case and perjuring himself.
Allan Lichtman: Civil suits can go forward during a presidency. It's not a guarantee that they will, because judges have to decide on a case-by-case basis, but I think there's a fair chance the suit stemming out of allegations of sexual harassment will go forward. [Feminist lawyer] Gloria Allred has already talked about wanting to get Trump into court and hold him accountable. And it's going to be very difficult if he is in court in a case like that, because his first tendency is to lie. He's also going to have a very difficult time eating the words he's already said.
What happens to get the wheels turning for impeachment if he perjures himself?
Impeachment begins in the House, and it's their sole responsibility under the Constitution. There's no review of what the House does—you can't appeal to a court or any other authority. So if Trump is found to be lying under oath, the House would have to hold an impeachment inquiry and draft articles of impeachment and vote on them, first in the House Judiciary Committee and then in the full House. By the way, if he's impeached and has committed a crime, he's then liable for prosecution. Of course, he could be pardoned by the next president.
The president doesn't even have to commit a crime to be impeached, right?
It can be any transgression that the House decides is serious enough to impeach a president. It's clear the framers of the Constitution meant for impeachment to broadly cover any transgression from a rogue president. It doesn't have to be an indictable crime under law––that's why they put impeachment in the hands of a political body, not in the courts.
I thought the most surprising concept you brought up in the book was that he might be impeached for failure to take action on climate change.
Typically crimes against humanity tend to be genocide or violence against a particular group of people, like what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s. But the International Criminal Court has recently prioritized crimes against the environment, which could deal with climate change. After all, climate change could be interpreted as a kind of genocide. Catastrophic climate change threatens our survival on this planet, or certainly our well-being, and is in a sense violence against all human beings. "If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet." That quote is from a 2009 open letter to Obama from various business leaders, signed by among others, Donald J. Trump, Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump. The irrefutable scientific evidence has not changed since then; it has, in fact, gotten stronger. The only thing that changed for Donald Trump was his political calculations.
How does the International Criminal Court have any say in our presidency?
The United States is not part of the Rome agreement that set up the ICC, but a complaint could be made from another nation on the effects of Trump's policies, and that could lead to a criminal investigation and prosecution by the ICC, which could lead to an impeachment investigation here in the United States. There have already been successful lawsuits in other countries based upon climate change, and there's that children's civil lawsuit going on in the United States. Those can be a prelude to the more serious charge of impeachment. I understand this is pretty far-fetched, but this is serious, this is real, this is our life on this planet.
Meet one of the young climate activists suing the federal government:
Ultimately though, Congress would have to take action. We live in such hyper-partisan times, I wonder if impeachment is even possible today.
Well, it's difficult in our very politicized political environment. But the recent results of the congressional election in deep-red Kansas show that even Republican partisans might be turning against Trump. That was a district that Trump won by nearly 30 points, and the Republican eked out a victory there with virtually no effort being made by the national Democratic Party to help their candidate. Moreover, understand that Trump has no strong relationship with the Republican Party. He's a bit like Andrew Johnson, a kind of a maverick in his own time. If Trump becomes a liability to the House, they may turn against him. After all, every one of them has to stand for reelection in 2018, and the Kansas results are certainly a warning shot.
Let's also not forget that the Republicans in the House love Vice President Mike Pence. He is a down-the-line, standard-issue, Christian conservative instead of an unpredictable maverick like Donald Trump. And if Pence gets to be president, he gets to appoint a vice president, which means we could have a Pence-Paul Ryan administration, which is a dream team for Republicans. And remember, not every Republican has to turn. Assuming Democrats would vote to impeach him, only approximately two dozen Republicans would have to turn against him. And in the Judiciary committee, about one-third of Republicans turned against Nixon back then.
He can also be kicked out for being plain crazy, right?
The 25th Amendment provides a mechanism for removing a president when he's too disabled to serve, and that could refer to mental disabilities. Additionally, mental health professionals follow the so-called Goldwater rule, way back from 1964, which comes from when psychologists were blasted for diagnosing Barry Goldwater. But they've now broken that rule. More than 30 mental health professionals published an open letter saying they didn't think he was fit to carry out the duties of a president. You can see that in those late-night or early-morning tweets, when he just feels compelled to lash out to say irrational things against his so-called enemies. The majority of the cabinet, the vice president, and two-thirds of Congress would have to agree, but this is possible.
That definitely seems like the most remote possibility. What's the most likely?
Russia. One of the explicit grounds for impeachment under the Constitution is treason. And we don't know yet what the extent of the collusion is between the Trump team and Russia is. There's certainly a lot of smoke, and I believe there is some fire behind that smoke. We have an FBI investigation, and we have two congressional investigations, and so far the Trump team has shown all the signs of a cover-up: conceal, deny, lie, deflect, and then when you're caught, claim that the contacts with Russia were innocuous—kind of like what Nixon's administration said about the Watergate burglary. They said it was a third-rate burglary, but we now know it was the tip of the iceberg in a series of serious, serious transgressions.
The end of your book is a guide for Trump to save himself. Given all that's come out about Russia in the past few weeks, can he even be saved at this point?
He can't get himself out of Russia. He can deflect all he wants, and he's a master of deflection, and he's done that all his life. But what happened happened. You can't erase history.
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