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.