The effort to impeach President Donald John Trump is already underway.
The organizers behind the campaign, Free Speech for People and RootsAction, are hinging their case on Trump’s insistence on maintaining ownership of his luxury hotel and golf course business while in office. Ethics experts have warned that his financial holdings could potentially lead to constitutional violations and undermine public faith in his decision-making.
Their effort is early, strategists admit. But they insist it is not premature — even if it triggers an angry backlash from those who will argue that they are not giving the new president a chance.
“If we were to wait for all the ill effects that could come from this, too much damage to our democracy would occur,” said Ron Fein, legal director at Free Speech for People. “It will undermine faith in basic institutions. If nothing else, it’s important for Americans to trust that the president is doing what he thinks is the right thing … not that it would help jump-start a stalled casino project in another country.”
The impeachment drive comes as Democrats and liberal activists are mounting broad opposition to stymie Trump's agenda. Among the groups organizing challenges to the Trump administration is the American Civil Liberties Union, which plans to wield public-records requests and lawsuits as part of an aggressive action plan aimed at protecting immigrants and pushing for government transparency, among other issues.
“We think that President Trump will be in violation of the Constitution and federal statutes on day one, and we plan a vigorous offense to ensure the worst of the constitutional violations do not occur,” said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director.
“We may have a new president, but we have the same old system of checks and balances,” he added.
Strategists behind the campaign for impeachment said they are confident that other groups will soon join their cause. They argue that Trump will immediately be in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Foreign Emoluments Clause, which prohibits a president from accepting a gift or benefit from a foreign leader or government.
Fein cited several examples, including rent paid by the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China for its space in Trump Tower in New York and potential ongoing spending by foreign diplomats at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and other Trump properties. In addition, he said, royalties collected by the Trump organization from the president’s business partner in the Philippines, who was recently named a special envoy to the United States, could violate the clause.
Trump said this month that he would donate “profits” from foreign business clients to the U.S. Treasury. However, neither Trump nor representatives of the Trump Organization have provided details on how such payments would be tracked, collected and disbursed.
The foreign emoluments clause has never been tested in the courts, and some scholars argue that violating it would not qualify as "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors," the grounds for impeachment of a federal official.
But Fein noted that former Virginia governor Edmund Jennings Randolph, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention and later the first U.S. attorney general, argued during Virginia’s debate over ratifying the constitution that a president who was found to have taken a foreign emolument “may be impeached.”
His group has mapped out a long-shot political strategy to build support for a vote in the House on articles of impeachment.
The first step is fairly simple: getting a resolution introduced that calls for the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether there are grounds to impeach Trump — a move that Fein said a number of members of Congress are interested in taking.
“Getting it introduced is not going to be a problem,” he said.
Still, the idea that a majority of the GOP-controlled House members would ultimately vote to launch an investigation of the new president seems highly improbable. Fein said he is confident the political climate will change and lawmakers will eventually support the effort.
“I think that at a certain point, the combination of new revelations coming out and, importantly, calls and pressure from constituents in their own districts will be a deciding factor,” he said. ”And at some point, they will decide it is in their own interests to support this.”
While half a dozen federal judges in American history have been impeached by the House and successfully convicted in the Senate, no U.S. president has ever been removed from office through such a process. The closest was Andrew Johnson, who narrowly avoided conviction in the Senate in 1868 after the House charged him with removing the secretary of war in violation of the Tenure of Office Act.
In 1974, the House Judiciary Committee approved articles of impeachment against then-President Richard Nixon, but he resigned before they could be voted on by the full House. President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, but the articles of impeachment were defeated in the Senate in 1999.