There has been speculation as to whether Donald Trump will survive his first term as President. Apart from death, how can a President fail to see out his constitutionally prescribed term of office? There are three ways in which he could cease to hold office.
(1) Resignation. Only one President, Richard Nixon, has resigned office, which he did in 1974 under threat of impeachment. Had he not resigned – he sent a short, one-sentence letter – he is likely to have been impeached by the House of Representatives and convicted by the Senate. (The Republican leaders in the House and Senate told him they did not have the votes to prevent his removal.) Some observers think that Trump is uneasy in the office, reflected in his frequent absence from the White House, and may simply decide to walk away. I have heard the contrary view, namely that he is the sort that thrives on all the attention. Anyone else may find the barrage of criticism to be intolerable, but his narcissistic tendencies means that it just bounces off his self-regarding armour.
(2) Impeachment. Under Article 2(4) of the Constitution, a President (or Vice-President or other civil officer of the US) ‘shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours’. The process entails the House voting articles of impeachment and the Senate, presided over by the Chief Justice, voting by a two-thirds majority of those present for conviction. Only two Presidents have been impeached (Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton), but neither was convicted by the Senate. Although the process is quasi-judicial, politics impinges, so much depends on the willingness of Republican law-makers to break ranks. That may well depend on how egregious the actions of the President are and the extent to which his popularity plummets. Members of Congress will not be acting in a political vacuum. Their principal concern will be to be re-elected.
(3) Removal under the 25th Amendment. Under this Amendment, ratified in 1967, the Vice-President takes over as Acting President if the Vice-President ‘and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide’, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. In short, the President may be removed by the Cabinet or Congress on grounds other that conviction of an offence. However, unlike the previous two routes, this one is not necessarily terminal. The President may resume office if he sends to the two presiding officers a written statement that no disability exists, unless the Vice-President and a majority of the principal officers or a body appointed by Congress within four days write to say that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of the office. ‘Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within 48 hours for that purpose if not in session.’ If then, within 21 days, Congress by a two-thirds majority of both Houses votes that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice-President continues as Acting President; otherwise, the President resumes his office. One can see how messy this option can become.
Are we likely to see any one of these utilised? One poll of some university professors found that over 60 per cent thought he would be impeached, though among the public the figure was 48 per cent – still a remarkably high figure, not least given that the President has been in office for only seven months. In Congress, 27 members of the House have co-sponsored a Bill to establish ‘a commission on presidential capacity’. All the members are Democrats, but the fact that they have made the move so early in a presidency reflects the concern about the President’s mental state.
Donald Trump is remarkable for the extent to which his possible resignation or removal is being discussed so early in his incumbency. Even if he survives this four-year term, it is not just leading Democrats who are eyeing the presidential nomination for 2020. He may see out his term, but the actions that give rise to all the speculation about him not doing so are generating a highly unstable polity. It really is a case of ‘tin hats everyone’.