The Korean expression “what was bound to come has arrived” best describes the current political situation in the US. It was only a matter of time before the Democratic controlled House of Representatives moved to impeach President Donald Trump.
Evidence that Trump appeared to be pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter caused the dam in favor of impeachment to burst. Biden has long been considered the strongest Democrat to take on Trump.
Of the two, Trump is in more serious danger of being impeached and removed from office. Head counts in the House of Representatives show that 225 representatives favor a formal impeachment inquiry, which suggests their support. A simple majority of 218 is required to impeach.
If the House of Representatives impeaches Trump, then he would face a trial in Senate where support of 67 of the 100 senators is required to remove the president. The Republicans have a majority of 53 in the Senate, which means that 20 Republicans would have to break ranks and support impeachment. At present, only a few Republican senators appear to be open to impeachment.
In the past, three US presidents have faced the possibility of impeachment, but no one was removed from office. Andrew Johnson, who became president in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, was impeached in 1868 and nearly removed from office. Impeachment ended his political career while the Republicans won the presidency and kept control of Congress that year.
A little more than a hundred years earlier, Richard Nixon faced the threat of impeachment but resigned in August 1974 in the face of almost certain defeat in the Senate. The Republicans lost a large number of seats in the November midterm elections and Gerald Ford, a Republican, lost his bid for reelection in 1976. The Democrats gained significantly from impeachment because it had broad public support.
In 1998, the Republican-held House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton, but he was acquitted in the Senate. In the November 1998 midterm elections, the Democrats gained a few seats in the House of Representatives, which bucked the long historical trend of losses for the president’s party in midterm elections. In 2000, however, Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore lost the presidential election to Republican George W. Bush.
In the first two cases, the impeaching party benefited because the president was unpopular. Conventional wisdom has it that the impeachment of Clinton hurt the Republicans, but Gore’s defeat in 2000 suggests George W. Bush benefited from that idea of a “Bush Restoration.”
With Trump, anything is possible, but history suggests that removal by the Senate is unlikely. The Democrats know this but are moving forward because history also suggests that the impeaching party benefits. Most Democrats believe firmly that impeaching Trump is the right thing to do regardless of the political realities involved.
In the US, a president typically has a strong chance of reelection if three factors line: peace, prosperity, and lack of scandal. Trump was moving toward the 2020 election in a strong position regarding the first two. Rumors of a scandal follow Trump everywhere, but many were indicated before the 2016 election and have lost their power to shock.
Impeachment, however, would stigmatize Trump and greatly hamper his bid for reelection. The situation would worsen if a number of Republican senators supported impeachment. Trump would probably win the Republican nomination, but he would face a strong challenge if a serious competitor emerged. Incumbent presidents who face a serious primary challenge always lose.
For the Democrats, impeachment is messy, but an effective way to hurt Trump’s chances for the reelection. A more effective way, of course, is for Democrats to find a candidate who can beat him. Joe Biden has seen his support erode since he entered the race in April. Elizabeth Warren now stands the best chance for nomination, but many consider her too far to the left to compete effectively against Trump.
The 2020 election was expected to be close because Trump’s approval ratings are not high enough to suggest an easily reelection, but not low enough to suggest an easy defeat. Impeachment will damage Trump which makes a Democratic victory the most likely scenario. The next most likely scenario is a narrow Trump reelection.
South Korean leaders should begin to work under the assumption that the Trump Era is about to end. They should study how a President Warren would affect US policy toward North Korea and other pressing issues.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.