Impeachment of President Trump highly unlikely

June 20, 2017

There is a whiff of presidential impeachment in the air. In fact, it didn't take but a few hours after election night for progressives, and even otherwise sensible newspaper columnists, to predict that President Trump would be impeached and removed from office fairly soon, or in one case, by now.

The latest is that Special Counsel Robert Mueller is investigating President Trump for obstruction of justice. This is the sort of charge that prompted President Richard M. Nixon to resign in 1974. But let's not rush to compare the two.

The presenting situation, as if you - dear readers - don't already know this, is the one-on-one meeting between President Trump and then-FBI Director James Comey. Comey records Mr. Trump's words as asking that Comey "let it go" with his investigation of Michael Flynn, who had been fired as White House national security adviser the previous day.

What we know about Flynn and his contacts with Russians are two. The first is that he talked with Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, back in December, during the transition after Trump's election. This is not a crime and, in fact, is fairly predictable for a person soon to be national security adviser.

Second, we know that Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, had some business contacts with Russians. That is not a crime either. The allegation, of course, is that Flynn and others in the Trump campaign conspired with Russians to influence the presidential election. So far, there is no evidence even though the FBI has been investigating that charge for more than a year.

So what we have here is an assertion by Comey that the president interfered with the FBI investigation, which Trump denies. On the other hand, Mr. Trump has made some other offhand comments that conflict with this. Welcome to Trumpspeak.

One theory here is that no sane prosecutor (to use Comey's famous words from last summer) would bring any charges in this situation because there is no corroboration of anything. It's Comey's word against the president's.

Further, there seems to be fairly unified opinion that neither Mr. Mueller nor anyone else can indict a sitting president, much less bring one to trial. That is because it is the president of the United States who is the chief law enforcement officer of the nation, not the FBI director and not any special counsel. Thus, the only action that can be brought is impeachment and removal. Once removed, the former president could be indicted.

And yet two other factors. The first is the words of Bob Woodward, the famous Washington Post reporter in the Watergate case. Woodward notes that in Mr. Nixon's case, there was an underlying crime, that being the burglary of the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate office building. The burglars were White House operatives. Oval Office tapes indicated that Nixon knew all about this, either before or immediately after the burglary.

Now, there is no underlying crime, at least none that has been seriously asserted. All kinds of smoke, true, but no fire after more than a year's investigating. Some of Mr. Trump's supporters and campaign officials had business ties with Russians. The question is whether such men would betray their country as a result of a business tie.

Second, there is the interesting comment by conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer. He suggests that Mueller cannot investigate obstruction of justice because he is too close a friend of Mr. Comey. It would be conflict of interest. Even if he didn't think so, a federal judge mostly likely would.

But let's say the special counsel's office does conclude obstruction of justice and sends that to the House Judiciary Committee.

Do you think the House and Senate would do much?

Impeachment is brought on charges of treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors. Skip the first two as irrelevant here. "High crimes and misdemeanors" is a political charge, and to be sure, impeachment is a political act, not akin to a criminal trial.

The determination of seriousness is made by House and Senate members, with no requirement for either proof beyond a reasonable doubt or even probable cause.

To go forward, impeachment requires a simple majority in the House. Two presidents have been impeached: Andrew Johnson in 1867 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Neither was removed from office by the Senate.

The case then moves to the U.S. Senate for a trial, presided over by the chief justice of the United States. Conviction and removal from office require a two-thirds vote. Neither was achieved in the Andrew Johnson or Clinton cases.

So even if you dislike President Trump, do you really think a Republican-majority House will impeach? And even if they did, or even if Democrats gain a House majority in 2018, do you think two-thirds of the Senate would agree?


Reid Beveridge has covered politics in Texas, Iowa, Wisconsin, Delaware and Washington, D.C. He is now retired at Broadkill Beach.


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