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Trump faces U.S. version of a UK no-confidence vote

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Douglas Cohn

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Sunday, May 26, 2019

President Trump makes his first state visit to the United Kingdom the first week of June, and he might take solace in the fact that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s situation is even more problematic than his own.

Mrs. May wasn’t able to deliver on a Brexit plan that satisfies her own party, and on Friday announced her resignation ahead of a likely no-confidence vote in Parliament.

Meanwhile, Trump is busily fending off an American no-confidence vote called impeachment. The Constitution limits impeachment to “high crimes and misdemeanors,” but that’s just fancy language for whatever perceived wrongdoing can get a majority of the votes in the House of Representatives and two-thirds of the votes in the U.S. Senate.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., says Trump is “self-impeaching” with his refusal to cooperate with legitimate congressional oversight.

She points out that Article 3 in the Articles of Impeachment against President Nixon was based on his refusal to obey lawfully issued congressional subpoenas. Pelosi says that Trump in telling witnesses not to obey subpoenas and withholding documents is engaged in a “cover-up.” Her choice of words infuriated the president.

Trump’s critics have the votes to proceed with the impeachment process, but they don’t have the votes they need in the U.S. Senate. A motion to impeach could easily pass the House with Democratic votes and one lone Republican, Michigan Congressman Justin Amash, a libertarian who read the Mueller report and concluded Trump should be held accountable for the behavior Special Counsel Robert Mueller lays out in detail.

But the Senate is a different story, and that’s where the impeachment trial is held. It is not a traditional trial with impartial jurors voting guilt or innocence, and a judge (chief justice of the Supreme Court) who weighs the evidence. These are senators with partisan loyalties, and until their constituents demand Trump’s removal from office, and they are confident they won’t be taken out in a primary by a Trump ally, they’re not going to vote to remove Trump from office.

So, Pelosi is right to slow down the impeachment train to build the case for public support. But she will continue to follow the facts as six committee chairs gather information and investigations get underway that are impeachment hearings in all but name.

It is unlikely that Trump will be removed from office before his term ends, and Democrats must be careful not to get so enveloped in the machinations of impeachment that they forget their history. President Nixon was forced to resign when a delegation of Republican senators led by Barry Goldwater, a former GOP presidential candidate, told him he had lost their confidence.

President Clinton emerged victorious from a partisan impeachment when a Republican-controlled Senate failed to muster the votes to remove him from office.

President Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, survived conviction in the Senate by one vote on a trumped-up violation of the Tenure of Office Act, passed by Republicans to limit his power to fire Cabinet officials, and later repealed.

Impeachment is an inherently political act, and politics can’t be taken out of politics. The British Parliamentary system makes it relatively easy to dispatch a politician who is no longer popular and has lost the confidence of his or her party. There are no hearings and there is no trial — only a vote.

The American way is balkier, which is what the Founding Fathers envisioned by creating three separate but equal branches. Even so, hearings and trial aside, in the end it still comes down to a simple vote — a British-style no-confidence vote.

Washington Merry-Go-Round, the nation’s longest-running column, presents today’s events in historical perspective. Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift are veteran commentators.

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