Obstruction of Justice: Remembering Nixon and the Impeachment of Clinton

“President Trump is a long way from being impeached, and with both the House and the Senate being in Republican hands, it’s unlikely that he will be charged with anything, let alone removed.”

President Donald Trump is facing an increasing risk of impeachment as furor over the firing of James Comey grows. In fact, for the first time, more Americans support impeachment rather than oppose it.

To be clear, impeachment does not mean that the president would necessarily be removed from office. In fact, no president has ever been forcibly removed from office. Instead, President Nixon resigned of his own free will, while president Clinton was impeached but never forced from office. Still, the growing public discontent does represent a threat to the Trump administration.

What is Impeachment and How Would a President Be Removed?

Impeachment is actually the first step of a two-step process to remove presidents and other civil officers from office. The impeachment process starts in a House of Representatives committee. If the committee supports impeachment, the process moves to the entire house, which must then vote on whether or not to impeach the president.

Importantly, the House of Representatives possesses the sole power to impeach the president. However, impeachment by itself does not constitute removal from office. Two presidents have been impeached: Bill Clinton and Andrew Jackson. Neither of them were forced from office.

Once the House impeaches the president, the removal process moves to the second stage: the Senate must vote on whether or not to remove the president from office. According to congressional rules, the Senate basically acts as judge and jury, while selected members of the House act as prosecutors and will present evidence to the Senate. If two-thirds of senators vote to remove the president from office, he or she is gone.

Nixon Stepped Down Because of Obstruction of Justice, Clinton Was Impeached for the Same

Back to the two most recent cases. Nixon was never impeached. However, impeachment proceedings were advancing against him, and the majority of Americans wanted Nixon removed from office. Interestingly, the primary accusations against Nixon didn’t actually center directly on the Watergate scandal. Instead, it was Nixon’s efforts to obstruct the investigation into said scandal that made up the bulk of the accusations against him.

Nixon was in the process of being charged with three articles of impeachment: obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential powers, and hindrance of the impeachment process. During the proceedings, the nail in Nixon’s coffin was his attempt to order FBI director Haldeman to halt the investigation into the Watergate scandal.

President Bill Clinton actually was impeached, and among the two charges was “obstruction of justice.” In addition, he was also impeached for lying under oath. Note that the actual sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky was not among any official charges. While Clinton was impeached by the House, he was not ultimately removed from office by the Senate.

Trump Facing Similar “Obstruction of Justice” Accusations

This brings us to the present. President Trump is a long way from being impeached, and with both the House and the Senate being in Republican hands, it’s unlikely that he will be charged with anything, let alone removed. Still, the one accusation that is proving to have some traction is once again “obstruction of justice.”

Former FBI director James Comey has claimed that back in February, President Trump asked him to stop the investigation into former presidential aide Michael Flynn and his relations with Russia. The request itself would not constitute obstruction of justice, and Comey ultimately refused it.

Apparently, Comey wrote a memo detailing the president’s request. Some weeks later, on May 9th, Comey was removed from office. If Trump did so in order to impede the investigation into Flynn and his Russian connections, some legal experts believe that would constitute obstruction of justice. This specific accusation is thus far proving to be the most significant one against the president, although it remains unproven.

Brian Brinker

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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