Only two presidents have been impeached in American history: Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson. Neither impeachment stuck—both presidents were acquitted after being tried by the U.S. Senate, and ultimately served out their terms. In the case of Richard Nixon, articles of impeachment were drafted and one was voted out of committee, but he pulled the old you-can't-impeach-me-I-quit maneuver, and thus was never technically impeached.
Which is to say that even if Trump's impeachment seems increasingly plausible, we would be in uncharted waters if the Senate actually removed him from office.
Many have speculated about the bizarre and terrifying outcomes Americans might see as a result of impeaching and convicting a figure as erratic as the current U.S. commander in chief. But in the interest of gaming things out realistically, VICE consulted a few experts about what would surely be one of the weirdest days in American history. Philip Bobbitt is a professor of federal jurisprudence at Columbia Law School, former associate counsel to President Jimmy Carter, and co-author of Impeachment: A Handbook, New Edition. Tom Ginsburg is a professor of international law and political science at the University of Chicago. Richard E. Berg-Andersson is one of the pioneers of political blogging at his site The Green Papers, and someone I consult often about crazy presidential hypotheticals.
With their help, I've prepared all the predictions you could ever need about an ignominious final day of the Trump administration. So consider yourself warned if you're hoping to go in sans spoilers.
Removal Isn't Likely, But It Could Happen
With the Senate dominated by Trump's party, and polls showing that voters of said party still absolutely adore him, politics are in the president's favor, even now. But this story has been too grotesque, and too full of twists and turns, to be absolutely certain that Trump's firewall of GOP support in the Senate will protect him forever. Just look at how quickly the narrative has shifted: This past spring, calls for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to draft articles of impeachment over alleged improprieties involving Trump and Russia fizzled. In July, then-presidential candidate Bill de Blasio captured a broad sentiment in the Democratic Party when he said voters could "impeach Donald Trump at the ballot box."
But something stirred in late August. Beltway insiders became noticeably annoyed that Trump was "slow-walking" $250 million in aid to Ukraine, and tossed around unprovable innuendos about how blocking the aid was what Russian president Vladimir Putin wanted. Then, on September 9, the public learned that the House Intelligence Committee was investigating Trump for potentially having withheld the money in order to force Ukrainian officials to find a way to smear his main political rival, Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, for corruption in Ukraine. The initial source on all this was reportedly an anonymous figure (now multiple figures) in the U.S. national security apparatus, meaning the new scandal was fresh grist for the mill, having almost nothing to do with that whole Russia-Mueller nothingburger. On September 24, Pelosi finally launched an official impeachment investigation, and it started moving quickly, even with a Congressional recess wedged in.
There was such an apparent rush to impeach that in late October, Democrats decided to deliberately slow down. Then a group of Republicans revealed they were pretty worried by going full Laura Loomer and storming into a closed-door impeachment hearing in an unruly act of defiance. The leader of that stunt, Florida representative Matt Gaetz, later argued that Democrats "intend to overturn the results of an American presidential election."
So a lot has changed in a few short months (besides de Blasio dropping out of the 2020 race). Among other things, it appears that even some Republicans are starting to believe the actual removal of the president is conceivable. Senator Mitt Romney is a so-called Never-Trump Republican who has been floated as a possible conviction vote; Romney hasn't weighed in definitively on this yet, but stranger things have happened. Romney "only" has to be joined by all the Democrats and independents, plus, oh yeah, 19 other turncoat Republicans, to achieve the necessary two-thirds of the Senate needed for a removal of a sitting president.
Is that probable? Absolutely not. But is it impossible? Also no.
"A vote could change at the last minute," Bobbitt told me, but all things considered, it's "very unlikely that that would be a surprise." If it's a close call, he said, it's reasonable to assume that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will keep a headcount during a trial. That information could dribble out to the press, and in all likelihood, folks watching from the sidelines will have been following closely on CNN or FiveThirtyEight or some sort of nerve wracking New York Times infographic. It's worth noting that "[McConnell] will have a much more accurate headcount than in the press," Bobbitt added.
So if McConnell—who has conceded he would not be able to dominate an impeachment trial the way he has been the "grim reaper" of Democratic legislation—played his cards very close to his chest, there might be a last-minute plot twist.
Here's What You'll See the Moment It Happens, Sort of
If you'd like to see what it looks like when there's a conviction after an impeachment trial in the Senate, you'll have to settle for the polite and orderly proceedings following the 2010 conviction of federal district Judge Thomas Porteous on charges of judicial corruption. Visually, you'd be treated to the rare sight of a full Senate. For normal business, only 51 senators have to be present, and practically speaking it can be even fewer than that. But an impeachment trial requires a larger vote, and therefore a much larger quorum in order to proceed. Also, we all know the whole Senate would want to be present for a show this big—including the Democrats currently camped out in Iowa in hopes of replacing Trump. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts would preside over the trial, where there would be a vote, and the scene would look something like what you see embedded below, assuming you subtracted the spirit of calm cooperation that permeated the Porteous trial:
The parliamentary details of the Porteous conviction would be similar, down to the decision whether or not to bar Trump from ever holding office again. You can even see familiar faces in the C-SPAN footage, like Senator Joe Manchin, who would almost certainly attend the Trump trial (there's good reason to think he might vote no, even though he's a Democrat).
But that was the trial of an obscure judge from Louisiana. There's no way those faces would look nearly as placid while announcing the earth-shattering removal of the world's biggest celebrity from the world's most powerful office. And the proceedings almost certainly wouldn't be followed up by a sportsmanlike round of bipartisan self-congratulation, as they were in 2010. Given the circus-like atmosphere on Capitol Hill lately, we'd be lucky if a monster truck didn't slam into the Capitol building.
The Second Trump Is Removed, Mike Pence (Probably) Becomes President
As I've pointed out before, there can't be no president. According to Ginsburg, Vice President Mike Pence would ascend to the presidency immediately, as in: the split-second the guilty verdict is delivered and the gavel slammed down. (It's worth noting that the Senate really does have a gavel—a weirdly small, scrimshaw gavel with no handle.) What you just read isn't the only way it can shake out; CNN has intimated that Pence could be vulnerable to impeachment as well, though none of my experts foresaw the proceedings taking that turn. It's plausible to imagine him ascending to the presidency while sitting on his couch watching C-SPAN and drinking an O'Doul's.
But here's a scenario that merits at least a moment's thought: what if Pence remains loyal to the bitter end, and parrots his erstwhile boss' lines about the impeachment process? Things like, "It's a fraud. It’s a scam. It’s a witch hunt," etc.?
Taking this even further, what if Pence won't even take the oath of office?
Berg-Andersson consulted the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, and argued, "This would legally constitute an 'inability'—under the language of that act—of the Vice President to become President, after which the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, would be sworn in as President."
Now, once again, we're in the realm of the extremely unlikely, so take that thought experiment for what it's worth.
Trump Would Go Ballistic, Obviously
It's no secret that Trump tweets erratically when he's under pressure, and I don't think anyone will take away my journalist card for opining that Twitter is probably where Trump could be found the moment he stops being president. He would probably even post (gasp) cuss words, as is his wont lately.
He might also try—and almost immediately fail—to appeal his conviction. There's nothing in the Constitution that allows this type of conviction to be reversed, but Trump announced in April he would try anyway.
"The president seems to be under the misconception that an impeachment conviction is appealable to the courts," Bobbitt told me, "and so you might see him talking about that, or some part of the public might be expecting that. But that's not possible."
So I had Bobbitt walk me through what would happen if Trump forced the issue:
"You have to file in district court. District court would immediately say, 'This isn't a justiciable issue.' You could appeal that, but within hours you'd get via circuit court or the Supreme Court, 'It's not a close question' [meaning they wouldn't hear it]. So that might be something the president hasn't fully taken on board yet," Bobbitt told me.
What About That "Cival War" the Republicans Have Been Talking About?
If Trump gets convicted, he'll have just been removed from office by his own team. Pollsters like the ones at Gallup track public approval of the impeachment process relentlessly. This is in part because politicians want to know what actions would make their voters hate them; having a constituency that despises you is a pretty good way to lose your job. If you can envision 20 Republican senators voting to convict Donald Trump out of sheer principle, and then losing their jobs and nobly returning to their home states to be devoured by the hordes of angry voters they created, you deserve some sort of trophy for idealism. Meanwhile, here on Earth, removal isn't something that would happen unless Trump were absolutely dead to rights, and—more importantly—bottoming out in terms of popularity.
It’s helpful to look at Richard Nixon's near-impeachment. One of Nixon's articles of impeachment advanced with the help of more than a third of the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee at the time. And the day before he resigned, he was advised to do so by a group of Republican congressional leaders who visited him at the White House. Nixon had, in short, lost the support of his own party. That hasn't happened with Trump, but it would have to for his removal to become plausible.
Trump would have to be so obviously and heinously guilty, in other words, that his approval rating dropped off a cliff, meaning people who currently make up his base of die-hard supporters would want him out on his ass, too. Nixon's approval had plunged to 24 percent by the end of his presidency (despite some notable people not being bothered by Watergate), and Trump would have to be similarly radioactive, instead of enjoying the approval of, at Gallup's last count, roughly 90 percent of Republicans. Most of the MAGA-heads like baseball umpire Rob Drake, who wrote a now-notorious "Cival War" tweet, would have to stop being MAGA-heads if removal were ever to actually take place. If whatever minuscule Trump death cult was left by that point wanted to declare a civil war (or, as others before me have written, possibly attempt to instigate some sort of race war), it would be a sad little suicide mission.
As for an ostensible act of war by the president himself, according to Bobbitt, don't bet on it. Trump briefly had a full-time private bouncer of sorts, but that guy, whose name is Keith Schiller, left the White House in 2017; whether he and his private security company retained any role in the Trump White House is unclear. "Those few people who are around them who are part of the Secret Service detail from the Treasury will stay with [the ex-president and ex-first lady]. But the Secret Service as a whole is not a Praetorian Guard. They're very professional people," Bobbitt said. "I've seen speculation in the press that if the president refused to leave, he could barricade himself in the mansion and the Secret Service would repel any efforts to dislodge him. That's just crazy. These are career people and not his appointees."
In all likelihood, Trump would be faced with a choice: take a dignified, Nixon-style ride away from the premises on a helicopter, or be escorted out of the White House by the Secret Service, cardboard box in hand, like a chump. My money is on the former.
Staffers Would Work Overtime Scrubbing the Trumps Out of the White House
According to Bobbitt, who worked in the White House during the transition from presidents Carter to Reagan, the presidential switcheroo is "quite stunning." As he recalled, "You go to work in the morning and there are photographs of the president, the cabinet, the president's family, and that sort of thing everywhere," and then when you come back from lunch, "all the photographs had been changed."
"The whole feel would change," he told me.
The West Wing staff will have been preparing for this moment for some time, even if a conviction didn't look likely. According to the book Inside the Clinton White House: An Oral History by Russell Lynn Riley, Charles Brain, one of Clinton's congressional liaisons, recalled having conversations with his colleague Lawrence Stein about succession, even though the odds were never really in favor of Clinton's removal. He's quoted as having said, "Larry Stein and I spent time saying to each other, 'Well Albert [Gore] will keep us, won't he?' Because no one knew what was going to happen."
In terms of staffing, "at first nothing will change," Bobbitt told me. "The mansion will change; the photographs will change, but the [National Security Council] staff will be the same. Except for the most senior people, they'll all stay the same. The cabinet stays the same, and then there'll be a shakeout over some months or even years."
Establishment Republicans Will Be Stoked to Get Behind President Pence
Thus far, Trump's famous effort to "drain the swamp"—meaning fire a ton of Washington, D.C. insiders—has been incomplete at best, assuming you believe there was ever a good faith effort to root out the corruption that has probably gotten worse in the capital. But more importantly, as Ginsburg explained to me, a whole lot of Republican swamp creatures would be over the moon when Trump's chopper took off for the final time, since they'd be more powerful than ever. It's a little bit of a quirk, after all, that the U.S. impeachment process lets the party of the removed president hold on to the presidency, unlike, say, the South Korean impeachment process, which is followed by an election 60 days later.
So the immediate winners on removal day wouldn't so much be the Democrats, but people aligned with Trump whose missions might be easier to carry out if there weren't such a flashy figurehead in office, attracting all sorts of attention. According to ProPublica, there are, after all, an astonishing 281 people (at least) who have made the jump from within the Trump administration to careers as lobbyists—four times as many such lobbyists as were created by the Obama administration in six years.
And "President Pence" may be just the words these folks long to hear.
"I think Mike Pence better represents the view of the U.S. government as a whole than Donald Trump does," Ginsburg told me. In his opinion, Pence's words, "reflect what government agencies want, and the generals of the interagency process." In other words, even if you believe Trump and his kids are illegally profiting off the presidency, chances are a bunch of insiders would cash in anew amid the chaos of his ouster.
Precisely what would Republicans be dreaming of achieving as they prepare to march in lock-step behind a president with less of a fondness for tweeting, and more of a fondness for American right-wing orthodoxy? Who knows? Jeremy Scahill of the Intercept once called Pence one of the "most prized warriors" working for "a cabal of vicious zealots who have long craved an extremist Christian theocracy." So maybe it would be something like that. But the Trump-haters of the #Resistance would at least have a fun afternoon on Twitter.
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