The question is no longer whether there are grounds to impeach Donald Trump. The question is when enough Republicans will put their loyalty to America ahead of their loyalty to their party.
Trump’s statements last week about firing of former FBI Director James Comey provide ample evidence that Trump engaged in obstruction of justice – a major charge in impeachment proceedings brought against Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
It’s worth recalling that the illegality underlying Nixon’s impeachment was a burglary at the Watergate complex, while the illegality underlying Clinton’s was lying to a grand jury about sex with an intern in the White House.
Trump’s obstruction is potentially far more serious. It involves an investigation into whether Trump or his aides colluded with Russia in rigging a presidential election – which would be the most direct assault on American democracy in history.
Last Thursday, in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt about firing Comey, Trump said: “I was going to fire regardless of recommendation.” Trump also said he pressed Comey during a private dinner to tell him if he was under investigation.
Trump conceded that the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election, which includes a probe into the possibility that Moscow was coordinating with the Trump campaign, was one of the factors he considered before firing Comey.
“In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story; it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won,’” Trump said.
The law is reasonably clear. If Trump removed Comey to avoid being investigated, that’s obstruction of justice – an impeachable offense.
On Friday, Trump tweeted that Comey “better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”
Here, the law is also clear. Seeking to silence, intimidate or influence someone likely to offer evidence in a congressional or criminal proceeding is also obstruction of justice – and an impeachable offense.
As a practical matter, though, nothing will happen until a majority of the House decides to bring a bill of impeachment. Which means 23 Republicans would have to join with House Democrats to put enough pressure on the Speaker of the House to allow such a bill to be considered.
The odds of this occurring in this Congress, under present circumstances, are approximately zero.
So, barring a “smoking gun” that shows Trump’s complicity with Russian operatives in interfering in the 2016 election, Trump’s fate seems to hinge on the midterm elections of 2018.
Those elections are less than 18 months away. That’s a long time in American politics. Under a Trump presidency, it’s an eternity.
But there’s another possibility.
In my experience, most politicians have two goals: to do what they consider to be the right things for the American public, and to be re-elected (not necessarily in that order).
If Trump’s poll numbers continue to plummet – particularly among Republicans and Independents – 23 House Republicans may decide their chances for being re-elected are better if they abandon him before the 2018 midterms.
House Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Republican leadership might make a similar calculation, enough to put a bill of impeachment on the table.
Most House Republicans prefer Vice President Mike Pence to Trump anyway. As one said to me several months ago: “Pence is a predictable conservative. Trump is an unpredictable egomaniac. Most of us are more comfortable with the former.”
There’s a good chance Trump’s poll numbers will continue to fall. First, he’s proven to be his own worst enemy. Even when things are going well, he seems bizarrely intent on stirring controversy – and on saying or tweeting things that get him into trouble.
There’s also a matter of the economy. The expansion that began in 2009 is getting long in the tooth. If history is any guide, we’re due for a slowdown or recession. And justified or not, presidents get blamed when Americans lose jobs.
Trump doesn’t have the character or the temperament to be president of the U.S. But this obvious fact isn’t enough to get him fired.
He’ll be fired when enough Americans decide they can’t abide him anymore.
Then, maybe in an impeachment proceeding, it will come out that Trump did something incredibly stupid – like give a nod of approval to one of his campaign bottom-feeders to tell a Russian operative to interfere in the 2016 election.
The House impeaches. The Senate convicts. That’s the end of Trump.
Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.