Can The President Be Impeached For Being Racist? It’s Complicated [Analysis]
Amid the controversy involving President Donald Trump’s statements toward four Congresswomen of color, whom he told to “leave the country” if they didn’t like his policies so much, questions about what can be done to demonstrate this sort of rhetoric isn’t acceptable have been brought about.
The House of Representatives plans to bring forward a resolution condemning Trump’s “racist comments,” according to reporting from NBC News.
One of the women to whom the president directed his ire was Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). After joining the other three women Trump attacked, collectively known as “the Squad,” she was interviewed on MSNBC about what she wanted to see happen next.
For her, it’s time to impeach Trump.
“It’s about time that we start the process and impeach this president,” Omar said, per reporting from Common Dreams. “We are as members of Congress doing the work that will get us the country we all deserve, one that is truly functioning for all of us, one that sees and values every single person in it.”
Omar added, however, that it’s not simply about Trump’s racist rhetoric. “We’re not just here to respond to the president’s tweets,” she elaborated. “We’re here to hold him fully accountable for his crimes and put forward a bold progressive agenda for this country.”
— Pod Save America (@PodSaveAmerica) July 15, 2019
Omar is not calling for Trump to be impeached for being racist, but her comments do bring up an interesting question: can a president be removed for office for harboring such views?
The matter is a complicated one, particularly because impeachment and removal of a president is a difficult endeavor. It requires a majority of the House of Representatives to agree to impeach a president for “high crimes and misdemeanors” (more on that later). It also requires two-thirds of the Senate to agree to indict, and thus remove, the president.
Two presidents — Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson — have been impeached but survived indictment, and finished out their terms. Richard Nixon resigned before impeachment could be voted upon.
On the question of why a president should be impeached, the matter is actually quite ambiguous. In April, Trump issued out a tweet in which he claimed he could only be impeached if proof of a crime occurred.
“Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment,” he wrote. “There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach.”
Only high crimes and misdemeanors can lead to impeachment. There were no crimes by me (No Collusion, No Obstruction), so you can’t impeach. It was the Democrats that committed the crimes, not your Republican President! Tables are finally turning on the Witch Hunt!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 22, 2019
The tweet is misleading for two reasons. For starters, the question of whether a crime occurred or not is still up in the air — per reporting from CNN, special counsel Robert Mueller made clear in his statements (and in his eponymous report) that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice in his actions during the Russia investigation.
But the second reason it’s misleading is that high crimes and misdemeanors is actually not what Trump says it is. In fact, the phrase predates the American Revolution, and means “crimes” or misdeeds for which a statute may not exist. The founders adopted the term for the Constitution from English Common Law.
Per the Constitution Rights Foundation:
“Since 1386, the English parliament had used ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ as one of the grounds to impeach officials of the crown…Some of these charges were crimes. Others were not. The one common denominator in all these accusations was that the official had somehow abused the power of his office and was unfit to serve.”
Alexander Hamilton agreed with this notion, writing in the Federalist Papers on how impeachment was reserved for those “those offences which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or in other words from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated political, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself.”
In reality, impeaching a president for violating a crime is obviously a more justified action. But it doesn’t have to be the only justification to merit their removal — “high crimes and misdemeanors” means more than literal crimes.
Overt racism is likely seen as a “violation of…public trust” in the eyes of many Americans. But at the same time, it’s unlikely to be used as justification for Trump’s removal on its own.
Impeachment proceedings typically include a wide list of grievances, not just one. Trump’s racism could be included on that list, theoretically speaking, but on its own, it’d be difficult to prove to a Republican-led Senate that Trump’s ouster was warranted, especially since so few Republicans are speaking out against him at this time for his latest racist diatribes.
In short, racism can be a reason to impeach the president — but the offense would have to be so overt, so obvious, and without any justification for defense, to warrant any president’s removal.
Right now, Trump’s racist actions are not obvious to Republicans, not egregious enough even to warrant their condemning them, even though to the rest of the nation they are clearly terrible. With that in mind, one should not expect Trump to be impeached over this matter, or any other racist statements he’s made in office so far.
As Hamilton explains it, the process is indeed a political one — and right now, the politics of Congress, emanating from the Republican-led Senate, are helping stave off any impeachment calls, on this issue and others.