The allegation of obstruction of justice which has now surfaced against President Trump is the first real charge against him, since he was sworn in, that appears to have legal legs under the terms spelled out for impeachment in the Constitution. This one could conceivably qualify as a “high crime” as described in the Constitution’s text, one of the thresholds that must be crossed for which impeachment is the prescribed remedy.
That Trump’s private conversation with now former FBI Director James Comey constitutes an effort to obstruct justice is not, itself, clear at this point because the evidence that Trump actually made that request is still pretty thin: just a memo written shortly after the alleged conversation, but never made public until now by Director Comey — at a time when Comey actually stands to benefit from its release. Given the absence of witnesses (and, so far at least, tape recordings!) it’s pretty much Comey’s word against the president’s. But Comey’s a credible and knowledgeable witness while the president has a documented history of exaggerations, half-truths and outright falsehoods to his credit. He has also gone on record via twitter making veiled threats against the fired FBI Director. The fact that the president asked his Attorney General and the Vice President to leave the room before commencing his discussion with Comey further suggests that the president had something in mind to discuss with the Director besides small talk and a few after dinner jokes. This is all circumstantial evidence that the president’s request was more than a mere friendly and otherwise innocuous aside. But many a major case begins, and some even pivot on, the circumstances.
If Comey did take it at the time as an effort to get him to cease his investigation and thus obstruction of justice, he would have been obligated to report the effort under law. But given that the request came from his superior at the time who was also President of the United States, he was arguably on solid ground in waiting to learn more before jumping to conclusions about the president’s intentions. Subsequent events, including his firing and other events which may yet come to light, could have put the memorialized record in the Comey memo into sharper relief, prompting the Director to make public what he did not when the event initially occurred.
The bottom line in all this is that Comey’s testimony is likely to carry more weight than Donald Trump’s denial because of Trump’s record of untrustworthy statements vs. the former FBI official’s record as an upstanding public servant over multiple administrations. Whether an impeachment bill is passed will depend on various factors, including:
1) Other facts supporting this charge or some other not yet named which may yet come to light;
2) How credible Comey, himself, appears to be when he gives his testimony before Congress; and
3) How foolishly the president ultimately responds in his words and behavior as this proceeds.
The last factor, especially, will drive public opinion and, thus, the sentiment of Republicans who currently hold Congress and could block or permit the impeachment process to go forward.
Perhaps Trump’s best hope now is that the Democrats, for all the sturm und drang of their rhetoric against him, already realize that it’s better for them to avoid actual impeachment at this time, which would make way for a Pence presidency that could do everything Trump’s has so far failed to do in setting a new legislative agenda. Their best bet, in fact, now seems to be to keep the political din over Trump going, to stymie his administration and congressional Republicans at every step, while leaving Trump, himself, in the Oval Office going into 2018, their political target du jour.
With a beleaguered and increasingly shrill, desperate President Trump to shoot at, they can enhance their chances of retaking Congress in 2018 and with Congress firmly in their hands, they’ll be able to pursue the president’s impeachment at their leisure while demolishing what’s left of Republican respectability in the minds of the greater part of the electorate. With Trump’s presidency limping toward 2020, reeling from the revelations and adverse publicity an active impeachment process will bring, Republicans will have been stymied for the four years of Trump’s term — or whatever’s left of it — and the Democrats will easily waltz back to power as American voters rebel at the unseemly spectacle of Republican dysfunction, reversing the Democrats’ own record losses in 2016.
Given this scenario it may be wiser for Republicans to take this Trumpian bull by its horns now and move quickly to impeach him (or otherwise get him out of the way using Article 25 in the Constitution to remove him for incapacity). Then, having cleared the deck, they can re-start the Republican presidency in earnest with Pence.
It will be messy and unpleasant. Trump would never go quietly. But imagine him hunkered down in the White House for four years while the impeachment process drags on and on. Worse, consider his reaction if forced to stand trial before the Senate. Will he testify with decorum or heed the advice of counsel? A quick surgical removal may be the best option Republicans have, given the speed with which the Trump presidency is now unraveling.