Why a Political Recall Won't Work on the President or Congress

What the Constitution Does and Doesn't Say About Removing a Sitting President

Donald Trump Victory Party
Donald Trump holds an election night victory party in New York City early on the morning of Nov. 9, 2016. Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

The idea of using a political recall to remove the president of the United States isn't new. After the 2016 presidential election, some voters who may have had second thoughts or who were disappointed that Donald Trump lost the popular vote but still defeated Hillary Clinton tried to launch a petition to recall the billionaire real-estate developer.

There is no way for voters to orchestrate a political recall of the president, not even Trump, who generated lots of controversy and had numerous conflicts of interest.

There is no mechanism set forth in the U.S. Constitution that allows for the removal of a failing president save for impeachment, which is limited for instances of "high crimes and misdemeanors" and not simply the whims of voters or members of Congress. Voters can't recall members of Congress, either. 

In fact, there are no political recall mechanisms available to voters at the federal level at all. Voters in at least 19 states can, however, recall elected officials at the state and local level. Those states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Wisconsin.

That is not to say there is no support for a recall process at the federal level.

Support For Presidential Recall Mechanism

To give you some idea of how prevalent buyer's remorse is in American politics, consider the case of President Barack Obama.

Though he easily won a second term in the White House, many of those who helped elect him again in 2012 told pollsters a short time later they would support an effort to recall him if such a move were permitted.

The survey, conducted by the Harvard University Institute of Politics in late 2013, found a majority of young Americans - 52 percent - would have voted to recall Obama at the time the poll was taken.

(Roughly the same portion of respondents also would have voted to recall every single member of Congress, including all 435 members of the House of Representatives.)

There are, of course, numerous online petitions that pop up from time to time calling on the removal of the president by means other than impeachment. On the website Petition2Congress, for example, voters are asked to sign a petition to recall Obama before the end of his second term.

One such petition to Congress states:

"If you do not act on impeachment proceedings on our current president and his administration, then we the people, respectfully demand a recall on President Barack Hussein Obama. We are dissatisfied with the anti-freedom, anti-constitutional, and the acts of treason implemented by this administration and also demand a full criminal investigation into Operation Fast & Furious, Benghazi, the 900+ excutive orders, the president's own sequestration, and the sixteen trillion dollar national debt."

On the site Change.org, there were efforts to recall Trump even before he was sworn into office. 

The petition stated:

"Trump was right about one thing; this election was rigged, but he's the one who rigged it, much as fellow Republican Scott Walker did to win his five terms in office.  Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Trump's backing by Russia, Saudi Arabia, criminal hackers, and American terrorist groups compromise the very safety of the United States of America, and that of the citizens. We have the precedent, and whatever the outcome, we will NEVER recognize Donald J. Trump as our Commander-In-Chief."

How a Presidential Recall Would Work

There have been several ideas floated for recalling a president, one that would originate with the electorate and another that would start with Congress and flow back to voters for approval. 

In a document he calls the 21st Century Constitution, recall advocate Barry Krusch lays out plans for a "National Recall," which would allow for the question “Should the President be recalled?” to be placed on the general election ballot if enough Americans get fed up with their president. If a majority of voters decide to recall the president under his plan, the vice president would take over.

In the essay When Presidents Become Weak, published in the 2010 book Profiles in Leadership: Historians on the Elusive Quality of Greatness edited by Walter Isaacson, historian Robert Dallek suggests a recall process that begins in the House and Senate.

Writes Dallek:

“The country needs to consider a constitutional amendment that would give voters the power to recall a failing president. Because political opponents would always be tempted to invoke the provisions of a recall procedure, it would need to be both difficult to exercise and a clear expression of the popular will. The process should begin in Congress, where a recall procedure would need a 60 percent vote in both houses. This could be followed by a national referendum on whether all voters in the previous presidential election wished to remove the president and vice president and replace them with the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a vice president of that person’s choosing.”