Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
The rambunctious president of the United States gives this column enough content to analyse the ins, outs, ups, and downs of the administration on a daily basis; on balance, weekly is more than enough.
What started out as another roller-coaster week for the White House has descended into an outright downward spiral when news reports emerged that President Trump directly asked James Comey, the former FBI Director, to drop an investigation into links between his former national security adviser and (naturally) Russian officials.
The misstep came 24 hours after the revelation that Trump passed classified intelligence to (you guessed it) the Russian Foreign Minister.
Make no mistake, Trump is now in the deepest crisis of a presidency that isn’t even 150 days old. Whereas the initial battle was for dominance in a town that can swallow up even the most powerful officeholder in the world, Trump is now in a scrap for survival.
Out of control with phone in hand, Twitter always at his fingertips, the President threatened to release a recording of the conversations he had with Comey in the Oval Office. The threat was staggering for an almost endless list of reasons, but centres around two:
First, that hw thinks the Director of the FBI might be so careless that he would let slip information that could be held against him in future. Between the two men, only one has an impeccable record of taking care and acting responsibly throughout his career – the other is the President of the United States.
Second, that Trump even threatened to publish what should be a confidential conversation of major strategic importance. In true Trumpian style, the threat could always be a distraction tactic aimed at shifting the conversation. In this case it has failed miserably.
Firing Comey had a clear motivation: Trump sought to expel his biggest threat from Washington. Now opposition Democrats, chomping at the bit, are increasingly beginning to float the “i” word – impeachment.
In reality, Trump is safe for as long as the rump of Republicans in the House and Senate back him. Bipartisan votes would be required to initiate impeachment proceedings and there is no material sign of that yet. But the tide of public and political opinion is very slowly beginning to shift.
For the first time, Public Policy Polling found more voters support impeachment (48 per cent) than oppose it (41 per cent). On Capitol Hill, as Trump bumbles away from gaffes towards more serious constitutional crises, Democrats are pondering when is the right time to strike. “
“On the issue of impeachment, I am doing my homework”, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard said in April. Congress holds the power to subpoena documents and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, indicated he is willing to issue a subpoena to obtain a memo authored by Comey stating that President Trump asked the FBI to stop its probe of Michael Flynn.
Chaffetz’s stance is worth watching because he is not seeking re-election and is therefore not beholden to the cult of Trump and ongoing Republican support. Paul Ryan, the Speaker with whom Trump and the Breitbart wing of the White House has clashed in the past, expressed support for Chaffetz’s move as he made clear that “We need to have all the facts”.
Meanwhile Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fully-fledged member of the Trump resistance wing of the Republican party, has invited Comey to testify publicly at a Senate hearing of the Judiciary Committee. As this column argued last week, Trump may have fired Comey but neither he nor the Russia problem will disappear any time soon.
So what now?
In order to begin the impeachment process, a majority of the House of Representatives would have to vote in favour. That’s 218 members in the lower chamber’s current make-up – all 193 Democrats and at least 25 Republicans. In reality, the Democrats would need to flip the House in 2018 to initiate impeachment proceedings with any realistic chance of success.
Second John Roberts Jr, the Chief Justice, would have to preside over a trial of President Trump. Then, two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote for it. In the upper chamber where Republicans enjoy a majority, the politics and mathematics make it almost impossible to foresee 18 Senate Republicans opposing a President they largely support at present.
Given bipartisan good will is at a nadir in Washington, it would take an almighty constitutional crisis for the two parties to come together and remove Donald Trump from office. In short, don’t hold your breath.
While an impeachment of Trump is therefore not imminent, Comey testifying in front of Congress almost certainly is. If the reported account of events holds up, it will look a lot like obstruction of justice, giving Comey an open forum to double down on the notion that Trump either does not understand the rules restricting a President or is simply not fit to hold office. It is a decision that ultimately Congress will have to take.
History is on Trump’s side: of the 45 presidents to have occupied the Oval Office, only two have ever been impeached by the House – and both were acquitted by the Senate. President Trump will desperately hope he does not become the third, but an error-prone start to his presidency makes for suspicious predictions looking forward.
Owing to constitutional design, Trump is safe in office so long as he retains the support of his party in Congress. But with an increasingly thin skin, frustrated by internal Republican unwillingness to back his legislative agenda, don’t rule out Trump continually lashing out against obstructionist House and Senate Republicans. On the wrong side of Trump, and with elections looming in November 2018, there could be very real incentives for their support to turn into opposition.
For now, the President is safe. But his position relies as much on his own need to rein in personal mistakes as it does on the support of a Congress of which the majority never wanted him near the White House in the first place.