To Kill a King
He’s handsome, young, and stylish. He’s a feminist and an LGBTQ ally. He supports renewable energy and surrounds himself with a diverse group of advisors. He’s killer at yoga. And now he’s on the verge of losing his office.
Having taken office as Prime Minister of Canada in 2015, Justin Trudeau caught the world’s heart with his charm, charisma, and his progressive agenda supporting women's and indigenous rights and environmental conservation. However, a recent scandal has severely damaged his reputation, crippled his party’s hold on Canadian politics, and may warrant his removal from office.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; after allegations that he and several members of the Canadian government pressured his Attorney General (see picture below) to affect criminal proceedings, some believe that he will soon be removed from office
The scandal started in February 2018 when the Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail, alleged that Jody Wilson-Raybould, the then Minister of Justice and Attorney General, was pressured by members of the Prime Minister’s Office to intervene in criminal proceedings against the Quebec engineering company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police brought charges against SNC-Lavalin, claiming that from 2001 to 2011 the company and its subsidiaries had paid Libyan government officials over $48 million Canadian and defrauded almost $130 million regarding construction projects. Wilson-Raybould and Globe and Mail claimed that several Canadian government officials pressured her to push the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to resolve the case with a deferred prosecution agreement, where SNC-Lavalin would not face charges, but would instead be fined. Trudeau and his then Principal Secretary Gerald Butts claimed that this approach would save more than 9000 Canadian jobs, though some analysts refute this. According to Wilson-Raybould, the people who pressured her include Trudeau himself, his Chief of Staff Katie Telford, Butts (considered to be one of the most powerful people in Canada), Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and members of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council, and the Department of Finance. After being removed from her role as Attorney General and being placed as Minister of Veterans Affairs, Wilson-Raybould resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet in February 2019.
Former Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould
If Trudeau did in fact pressure her, it could constitute an obstruction of justice, which would warrant his removal from office. With this in mind, many are asking the question, how difficult should it be to remove a head of government from power? This question has come up several times in both Canadian and U.S. politics. Recently, many including Massachusetts Senator and Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, Michigan Republican Representative Justin Amash, and 71 House Democrats have argued that Donald Trump has committed impeachable offences, especially with regards to the Mueller Report regarding Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The tweets from Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Justin Amash calling for President Trump’s impeachment. As of July 20, they have been joined by 71 House Democrats.
In the United States, impeachment is rare, with only two American presidents - Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton - having ever been impeached, neither case resulting in them being removed from office. Richard Nixon, known for his role in the Watergate scandal, was nearly impeached, though he resigned before Congress had the opportunity to carry out proceedings. Canada does not have a process for impeachment per se, but it does have numerous mechanisms for removing scandalized prime ministers from power - and because Canada operates under a Westminster-style parliamentary system, this is a much simpler undertaking. The prime minister can either be removed by having enough of their party’s Members of Parliament (MP) voted out, or the Canadian Parliament can issue a confidence vote with a simple majority of MP’s. This would trigger new elections, or allow a new government to be formed under different leadership. Six Canadian governments have lost no-confidence votes, four of which subsequently lost the resulting general election and were removed from power. Another possibility is that the Governor-General of Canada, the British monarchy’s official representative in the country, could dismiss Trudeau, though this has never occurred.
While it has not been proven whether Justin Trudeau committed obstruction of justice, and Canadian opinion of him and the Liberal Party has recovered somewhat from the scandal in recent months after significant loses, Trudeau still faces the threat of losing power. Is America’s system too rigid and slow by comparison? For example, should the U.S. implement the confidence vote? Unlike Canada, where the prime minister’s party by design holds the largest number of seats in parliament, in the United States congressional elections are completely separate from presidential elections. This can lead to situations where the party that controls Congress is opposed to the party of the president; in this scenario, a confidence vote could be used to secure partisan advantage. Since presidents are not necessarily the leaders of political parties, and there is no equivalent to a “Governor-General of the United States”, America has only the impeachment process to remove a head of government from office.
Removing a sitting president should not be an easy process. Presidential approval ratings fluctuate constantly; George W. Bush’s approval rating ranged from 90% to 25% over the course of his presidency. Furthermore, if a president could be removed quickly and easily, it would be next to impossible for them to enact any sort of bold or radical policies, either due to initial opposition or fear of losing popularity. Impeachment should be something reserved only for serious failings of a president, not partisan disagreements. Americans are much more limited than Canadians in the ways they can remove a head of government, due to the differences in their systems of government. The American Presidential system does have several unique checks on executive power lacking in the Westminster Parliamentary system; Congress and the presidency can be opposing parties, Representatives are elected twice as often as presidents, and Senate elections are staggered as to usually not coincide with either presidential or House elections. These give multiple opportunities for the populace to check a president’s power. However, this can also lead to deadlock and a reduction in productivity as much as it can lead to a check of an unpopular president.
U.S. Presidents Andrew Johnson (left, 1865-1869) and Bill Clinton (center, 1993-2001), the only two U.S. presidents to have been impeached. On the right is U.S. President Richard Nixon (1969-1974), who was the only American president to resign from office, though he was never actually impeached.
If the United States wanted to make it easier to remove a sitting president, it would need to be resistant to partisan power schemes, and still restrictive so that it does not become a debilitatingly common affair. The United States could change a fundamental element of its government if it wanted to - think of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, establishing direct election of senators, or current calls to abolish the Electoral College or impose congressional term limits. The only other option, though highly unlikely, would be to transition from a Presidential to a Parliamentary structure of government. Thus, if America wants to make it easier to impeach presidents, it must either alter the impeachment process or find a new procedure. In addition, we should pressure our elected officials to both take stronger and clearer positions on what acts warrant impeachment, and then to follow through when these acts occur. Making heads of government, and elected officials in general, easier to remove can be a good thing - fear of losing office is often a powerful incentive for efficiency among civil servants. However, the American framework of government provides unique challenges that must be overcome if elected officials, especially the president, are to be more easily removed from office by either Congress or the American people.