How to Impeach a President

Joe Mathews

Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)


How do you impeach a president?

South Korea knows how.

I recently visited Seoul to attend a conference put on by the Korea Democracy Foundation. The focus was mostly on direct and participatory democracy — the use of initiatives, referenda and deliberative processes – by citizens to make decisions between elections.

But a powerful keynote covered one more instance of direct citizen action—the removal of a president from office.

Tae-ho Lee, a leading organizer of what was called “the Emergency Campaign Public Campaign for the Resignation of the President” explained the successful effort that led to the impeachment of South Korea President Park Geun-hye in March.

Lee’s speech offered several lessons for anyone who might think about removing President Trump.

Among them:

  1. Don’t focus on legal process for removal. All the conversation about impeachment votes in the House of Representatives and conviction in the Senate miss the point, which is to convince the broader public of the necessity of removal. Procedures will come into play only once that standard is set.
  2. Your protests must be relentless. The campaign against President Park put two million people on the streets of Seoul for months. This relentless protest and civil disobedience became self-sustaining, and made the case more powerful than any speeches or investigations.

The size of the protest made it self-perpetuating, and its tone made it electric – lots of fun, singing, games etc. And the protestors made clear they weren’t leaving until the crisis was over – and the only way to end the crisis was for President Park to step down or be removed.

  1. Focus on corruption, not policy or views. President Park had policies that were unpopular with the public, and she had out-of-the-mainstream views. But those are not what finished her. It was personal corruption –and the corruption of her associates that forced the people to act. Impeachment is an extraordinary intervention, and one that people are only willing to take to stop a crime-in-progress. So the focus of American impeachment advocates should be not on Trump’s racism or craziness, but on his corruption and self-enrichment. Stop the crime in progress
  2. Don’t depend on outside investigation. Yes, prosecutors offered revelations that fueled the removal of President Park, who is now in prison. But focusing on investigations makes the question one purely of investigatory process. In the Trump context, to focus on the investigation is to focus on Russia campaign questions – which are in the past, and are limited in their scope. The problems with Trump are much broader – and they are ongoing.
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