This post has been updated.
As the backlash over President Trump's various controversial decisions escalates — the firing of FBI Director James B. Comey and divulging classified secrets to Russian officials, just to name two — Trump's critics are starting to use the “i” word more and more.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said last month that she will “fight every day until he is impeached.” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said last week that Trump's actions “may well produce impeachment proceedings.” Other Democrats have repeatedly echoed their thoughts.
And now it's not just Democrats; Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was asked by reporters Wednesday whether, if reports that Trump asked Comey to drop his investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn are true, Trump's actions are grounds for impeachment. Amash paused and responded, “yes.” Amash's comments weren't a full-throated call for impeachment, but they're significant, coming from a conservative congressman from the Midwest.
But while some Democrats, and Trump's opponents in general, might be clamoring for an impeachment, it isn't as simple as Democrats deciding they don't like him. There are two big reasons for that. First, impeachment is actually a relatively lengthy legal process — and no president has ever actually been removed from office. Second, removal from office requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senate, and Republicans — who still publicly back Trump, although some have criticized some of his recent decisions — still broadly support him.
Let's be clear: Trump hasn't been accused of any crimes. His opponents say he's unfit for office, but that's a judgment call, not a standard by which presidents can be impeached. Legal analysts say Trump may have obstructed justice if he asked Comey to drop his investigation of Flynn, but caution that proving intent is key in obstruction of justice cases.
In the end, it comes down to members of Congress deciding that Trump did something that meets constitutional requirements for impeachment.
The Constitution states that “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High Crimes and Misdemeanors.”
But how those high crimes and misdemeanors are defined is largely up to House members themselves.
Actually removing a president from office is a three-step process. First, a majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote in favor of impeachment. That means at least 218 out of 435 members of the House would need to cast ballots to impeach the president. As of today, Republicans hold 238 seats while Democrats hold 193, and four seats are vacant. That means Democrats would need to persuade 25 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, which doesn't seem likely.
Second, the president would face trial in the Senate. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. would preside over the trial.
Third, the Senate would vote on whether to convict or acquit Trump. Two-thirds of the Senate would have to vote in favor of conviction for Trump to be removed from office — a pretty high bar, given that it's hard for either party to get even the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative filibuster these days.
And history is on Trump's side. Only two presidents have been impeached, and none has ever been removed from office.
Andrew Johnson became the first president to be impeached in 1868. In the wake of the Civil War, Johnson clashed with Republicans who wanted Southern states to pay a higher price to rejoin the union. They eventually impeached him for attempting to replace his secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, without congressional permission, a contravention of the Tenure of Office Act, which stated that the president couldn't relieve members of his Cabinet without consulting the Senate. Johnson's impeachment went to trial in the Senate, and he escaped being removed from office by a one-vote margin.
Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached, in 1998, as the Monica Lewinsky scandal unfolded. He was charged with four counts, two of which he was impeached for: perjury and obstruction of justice. When it came to the Senate trial, all 45 Democrats voted to acquit him of both charges; they were joined by 10 Republicans in acquitting Clinton of the perjury charge, and five in acquitting him of the obstruction of justice charge.
In perhaps the most famous presidential scandal in U.S. history, the president wasn't impeached. When Richard M. Nixon left office in 1974, he faced almost certain impeachment, and likewise almost certain removal from office. But he chose to resign instead, handing the presidency to Gerald Ford.
Johnson, Nixon and Clinton were all publicly accused of transgressions for which there was publicly revealed evidence. While scandal swirled around all three, and their political opponents howled for their removal from office, none was actually removed by the political process laid out in the Constitution.
And as long as Trump retains the backing of Congress, he's very unlikely to be removed either.
David Weigel contributed to this report.