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Impeachment Puts Presidential Power on Trial

by Alex Garlick

The US House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump with just seven days left in his term, and the US Senate will conduct his trial after he leaves office. This will be the first time a president will stand trial in the Senate without the powers of the presidency at his disposal. Trump never put much value in these soft powers, usually based on relationships that require bargaining, instead preferring to publicly air his grievances with members of Congress. The unusual removal trial provides the opportunity to observe how much those soft powers matter in the Senate’s removal calculus.

The key number to watch will be the number of Senate Republicans that vote to remove Trump. Sen. Mitt Romney’s vote to convict Trump of “Abuse of Power” in the 2020 impeachment proceedings was the first time a Senator had ever voted to remove a president of his own party from the White House.* Why has it been so rare for members of Congress to vote to remove presidents of their own party? Maybe they are just more likely to see things from the president’s perspective, but presidency scholars offer two conceptual reasons that members of Congress are so reluctant to break from a president of their own party.

First, presidential co-partisans in Congress can receive the trappings of the executive branch. The president controls many levers of power within the executive branch, including cabinet positions, judicial nominations in a senator’s state, and spending decisions made by federal agencies. For example, President Lyndon Johnson proposed a NASA research facility at Purdue University in Indiana to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act to secure the support of House Republican Leader Charles Halleck. In short, all sorts of deals can happen between members of Congress and a friendly president of their own party, and a senator does not want to turn off that spigot of goods. A key to this behavior though, is that is based on personal relationships and takes place behind closed doors.

This will be the first time a president will stand trial in the Senate without the powers of the presidency at his disposal.

Second, senators may fear opposing the president as he can use his “bully pulpit” to attack their electoral chances. The media and the public pay great attention to the president, so senators fear being on his bad side. By turning on the most notable figure in their party, these members run the risk of alienating the very voters who put them in office. This is a particularly acute risk for senators facing primaries in the upcoming cycle. Before Trump’s twitter account was suspended, he already came out in support of a primary challenge against Sen. John Thune (R-SD) the number three highest Senator in the Republican conference. And in the past he has attacked Republican Senators like Jeff Sessions, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Mitt Romney, to just name a few.

These two different mechanisms align with two classic studies of the presidency. The “soft power” of the presidency was a key source of influence in Richard Neustadt’s Presidential Power (first published in 1960), while the ability of presidents to go over the heads of members of Congress by appealing directly to voters is featured in Samuel Kernell’s Going Public (first published in 1992). While these studies are not precisely about impeachment, the logic of these two schools of thoughts has confounded any explanation for why presidential co-partisans have stood by presidents of their party facing removal.

Trump’s second removal trial provides a natural experiment of sorts, as the verdict will be reached after Trump has left office, therefore removing the tools of influence that matter for the Neustadt school. As a private citizen, Trump will not be able to offer wavering senators any carrots, leaving them only to fear the stick of interference in their future elections. Each additional Republican senator that votes to convict Trump shows that the threat of Trump going public is not enough to deter them.

There would be a degree of irony to that outcome, as Trump seemingly preferred browbeating congressional Republicans on Twitter to working with them behind the scenes as Neustadt would have prescribed. Instead of participating in the lawmaking process behind the 2020 NDAA bill or recent round of Coronavirus relief, Trump instead waited until they were passed to attack both bills. Even on his signature policy achievement (the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act), Trump was not proactive in shaping the outcome by finessing his Congressional allies. Using Neustadt’s definition of presidential power, critics like Sarah Binder, Matt Dickinson, and Matt Glassmann have each labelled Trump as a notoriously “weak” president.

Like many “natural experiments” in political science, this one is imperfect as there are a great number of factors that could confound the decision of Republican senators as they ponder the decision to convict Trump. The nature of the crime that he was impeached over — inciting a mob that desecrated and endangered the very body he will be tried in — is unprecedented. In addition, the most notable consequence of a decision to convict Trump would be that he would no longer be able to hold public office, and Republican senators with their own presidential ambitions may prefer to have Trump ruled out of future runs for the office. Also, the Republican party at-large suffered greatly in the election after Nixon left office, and Republicans may not want to inflict greater reputational harm on the standard-bearer of their party.

The one thing Republican senators can be assured of is that a vote to convict Trump will lead them to receive the brunt of Trump’s fury. So each Republican vote is also an indication that they do not fear Trump going over their heads, and could serve as a reminder that the powers of the presidency helped Trump before and still matter.

*Although it should be noted that during Watergate, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) informed Richard Nixon he had lost the support of Senate Republicans and he then resigned.

Alex Garlick is Assistant Professor of Political Science at The College of New Jersey, and was a 2016-17 APSA Congressional Fellow.

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