The president of the United States told the FBI director he "hoped" the director could stop an investigation into one of the president's top lieutenants. The president asked if he was under investigation. Then the president fired the FBI director abruptly, and issued contradictory statements about why he did so. Over the last few days, as reporting from papers like the New York Times has uncovered his ethically shady conversations with James Comey, journalists, legal experts, and social media busybodies of all stripes have been wondering the same thing: Does all this add up to Trump obstructing justice? And if it does, does that make it time to impeach him?
Impeachment talk has been circulating since before Trump took office, but this week at least a few elected Democrats have begun openly musing about it, with Texas Congressman Al Green preparing to take to the House floor Tuesday to officially call for impeachment. But that's an empty gesture. Republicans control the House and Senate; it's Republicans who will ultimately decide whether to run Trump out of town, or live with the orange man in the White House. That's going to be a pretty big decision, and one that is likely to be more concerned with politics than the law.
Removing a president from office is obviously incredibly difficult, and it's never been done (Richard Nixon resigned before he could be formally pushed out). A majority of the House has to vote to impeach, and after that two-thirds of the Senate (67 senators) have to vote to actually kick the president out. Even if the Democrats were united in their desire to remove Trump, 23 House Republicans and 19 Republicans in the Senate would have to sign on. It's very difficult to imagine so many politicians turning on a president of their own party.
Still, John Hudak, a governance studies expert at Brookings Institute, told me that "there's absolutely a very strong chance" that the events of the past week lead to Trump's impeachment.
"I think they're close to talking about it in a serious way," he said. "The fact that you're not seeing any Republicans defending him this morning indicates it's a serious possibility."
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Congressional Republicans are openly criticizing Trump, subpoenaing any records Comey kept of his conversations with the president, and inviting the former FBI director to testify before the Senate. A few have even joined Democrats in calling for some sort of independent investigation into Trump's actions. Only one, Michigan's Justin Amash, has said the I-word.
Hudak said that many Republican legislators would probably welcome the end result of impeachment, which would be President Mike Pence. "Pence is a true conservative, he's someone with legit experience, he's temperamentally more stable than the president, and he's someone many in Congress know well," Hudak said.
"Trump could eat a live baby on top of a stack of blood-soaked money from ISIS and the GOP caucus are so gutless they'll never, ever, ever impeach him until his numbers crater."
But even if the party leadership decided they really wanted to remove Trump, doing so would take months, grind Congress to a halt, and provoke widespread outrage among right-leaning voters. A recent survey from Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling found that 48 percent of voters wanted Trump impeached—but 73 percent of self-identified Republicans and 83 percent of Trump voters opposed impeachment.
"Impeachment is the hardest thing to do. So so so hard to do," Republican consultant Rick Wilson, who has been vocally anti-Trump since before the election, told me in an email. "Let's face it; the GOP caucus is going to hang with him as long as his base-approval numbers are where they are; 70%+. Trump could eat a live baby on top of a stack of blood-soaked money from ISIS and the GOP caucus are so gutless they'll never, ever, ever impeach him until his numbers crater."
I didn't ask Hudak about the baby thing, but he thinks that the important thing isn't Trump's approval rating but how angry the base would get over impeachment and removal—he told me he thought the GOP should do some careful polling to see what their voters would do if Republicans actually took out their president. And if they went through with it, they would have to "drag Trump through the mud" during the impeachment process in order to emphasize to the public that their reasons for removing him were, uh, unimpeachable.
Read more: Reasons Trump could be impeached.
But Trump's supporters—who overlap but are not necessarily synonymous with Republicans—would still be enraged. The fallout would be unpredictable but definitely damaging to the GOP, who after all elected Trump and stood by him through several cycles of embarrassing scandal.
"The Republicans are not going to do this in order to get a political win. Republicans will do this to minimize a political loss," Hudak said—meaning that they'll only impeach if Trump's behavior is so erratic, his scandals so embarrassing, that there's basically no option but to pull the trigger. As Hudak put it, "What Republicans face is a simple choice: When do we want to stop the bleeding?"
But there's one final wrinkle in this impeachment business. Before GOP leadership even floats the idea that they're thinking about it, they have to be absolutely, 100-percent sure that they have the 67 votes they would need to take Trump down. Because if an impeachment fails to remove the president, they would get the worst of all worlds: A divisive public debate that stalls their agenda, a base pissed off that they tried to unseat their red-hatted hero, and a famously vindictive president who now knows for sure just how much his own party hates him.
"If Republicans try this and fail, heaven help them," Hudak said.
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