Ob­struc­tion claims Re­moval from of­fice de­pends on pol­i­tics and whether pres­i­dent changes course


Im­peach­ment is not a word peo­ple throw around lightly in Wash­ing­ton but claims t hat Don­ald Trump has ob­structed the course of jus­tice by at­tempt­ing to sti­fle in­quiries into his cam­paign’s links with Rus­sia have in­ten­si­fied over the past 24 hours.

The furore comes af­ter the dis­clo­sure of a memo from for­mer FBI di­rec­tor James Comey which stated that the pres­i­dent urged him to shut down the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Michael Flynn, his for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser.

Ob­struc­tion of jus­tice is a highly charged is­sue in US pres­i­den­tial his­tory: both Richard Nixon and Bill Clin­ton faced the ac­cu­sa­tion.

Whether there is a real chance of Mr Trump be­ing re­moved from of­fice will turn on pol­i­tics more than le­gal anal­y­sis — and on whether the pres­i­dent him­self re­alises the grav­ity of the sit­u­a­tion and changes course. Law­mak­ers were al­ready trou­bled by Mr Trump’s de­ci­sion to fire Mr Comey and his own ac­knowl­edg­ment that he was think­ing of “this Rus­sia thing” when he did it. If it is es­tab­lished that the pres­i­dent had pre­vi­ously asked Mr Comey to stop in­ves­ti­gat­ing Mr Flynn’s ties to Rus­sia, it will lay him open to ac­cu­sa­tions that he was try­ing to pre­vent the au­thor­i­ties from in­ves­ti­gat­ing and ap­ply­ing the law.

It is not clear Mr Trump’s al­leged re­quest to Mr Comey, de­nied by the White House, would sat­isfy the nor­mal crim­i­nal stan­dard for ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. In any case many le­gal ex­perts ques­tion whether a pres­i­dent can be pros­e­cuted for a crime while in of­fice.

But the big­ger is­sue is whether his con­duct could lead him to be­ing im­peached. This is a politi­cal process in Congress turn­ing on “trea­son, bribery or other high crimes and mis­de­mean- ours”. It does not re­quire a clear breach of the crim­i­nal code. Justin Amash, a Michi­gan Repub­li­can, said that if the al­le­ga­tions against Mr Trump were true, it could be grounds for im­peach­ment. Apart from be­ing booted out by the elec­torate, there are two main ways of eject­ing the pres­i­dent. One is via the 25th amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion, in­tro­duced in 1967, which al­lows his re­moval if he is judged to be un­able to dis­charge the pow­ers and du­ties of his of­fice. While some law­mak­ers have claimed that Mr Trump may be men­tally un­fit to con­tinue in of­fice, there is no prece­dent for this mech­a­nism be­ing de­ployed.

The more re­al­is­tic av­enue is via im­peach­ment. This would in­volve the House ju­di­ciary com­mit­tee launch­ing hear­ings, be­fore a sim­ple ma­jor­ity of the House votes to im­peach the pres­i­dent. The lat­ter step would amount to an in­dict­ment; the mat­ter would then pass to the Se­nate, which would need a twothirds ma­jor­ity to eject the pres­i­dent. Democrats have been de­mand­ing an in­de­pen­dent fig­ure look into in­ves­ti­ga­tions into al­le­ga­tions the Trump cam­paign col­luded with Rus­sia. While the House and Se­nate in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tees are delv­ing into the mat­ter, pro- A White House pro­tester de­mands ac­tion over al­leged ties with Rus­sia gress has been ham­pered by par­ti­san squab­bles. The FBI, which has been ex­am­in­ing the is­sue, lacks a di­rec­tor.

Su­san Low Bloch, a pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge­town Law, who has tes­ti­fied to Congress on im­peach­ment, says a spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor’s find­ings could be used to help the House de­cide if there is an im­peach­able of­fence. An­other means to ex­am­ine the is­sue would be via a spe­cial con­gres­sional com­mit­tee. With the Repub­li­cans in con­trol of the House, the chances of con­gres­sional moves against the pres­i­dent will de­pend on the mood among the party lead­er­ship and how they read the elec­torate’s re­sponse to the Trump scan­dals.

Paul Ryan, Speaker, sup­ports calls for memos and record­ings of meet­ings be­tween the pres­i­dent and Mr Comey to be handed over to a com­mit­tee, as well as leader Kevin McCarthy, a close ally of Mr Trump’s. In the Se­nate, Mitch McCo- nnell, Repub­li­can leader, is the cen­tral fig­ure, along­side Richard Burr, who chairs the in­tel­li­gence com­mit­tee, which is look­ing into the Rus­sia mat­ter.

Most Repub­li­cans have been un­will­ing to openly op­pose the pres­i­dent and his le­gions of sup­port­ers. How­ever, for a grow­ing num­ber, the op­tion of ig­nor­ing the scan­dal is be­com­ing un­ten­able. John McCain, Ari­zona se­na­tor, said prob­lems en­gulf­ing Mr Trump were near­ing “Water­gate size and scale”.

If Repub­li­cans do ul­ti­mately go down the im­peach­ment route, it would leave the coun­try in a frag­ile place. Lau­rence Tribe, a pro­fes­sor at Har­vard Law School and a for­mer coun­sel­lor to Pres­i­dent Barack Obama, says the mil­lions of vot­ers who sup­ported Mr Trump will see this as a ma­noeu­vre by Democrats to nul­lify the elec­tion re­sult. But he ar­gues that Mr Trump has bla­tantly vi­o­lated his oath of of­fice. “It is im­per­a­tive that peo­ple step up and take their own con­sti­tu­tional oaths se­ri­ously,” he says.

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