After months of investigation, indictments, and jail sentences of Trump’s associates, reporters claim to have uncovered what may be the biggest single threat to the presidency. BuzzFeed News reported Thursday, January 17, that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has proof that President Trump instructed his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about the Trump family’s plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. If true, it would indicate an obstruction of justice so brazen that even Republicans might be inclined to press for impeachment proceedings.
The Washington Post points out that there are two major caveats in this story. For one, it relies on two unnamed “federal law enforcement officials involved in an investigation of the matter,” which is kind of like when “a source close to Jennifer Aniston” assures a celebrity gossip magazine that, for once, the pregnancy rumors are actually true. Cohen’s team won’t confirm the story, which makes it even tougher to verify. But the Post also notes that the report’s thorough detail of the evidence and process by which Mueller purportedly obtained this information seems pretty convincing. But what could happen next?
Can a sitting president be indicted?
Legally, there is some debate over whether a sitting president can be indicted for a crime. But our government’s checks and balances allow for impeachment — the act of legally and forcibly removing someone from office.
Anyone elected to the Executive Branch, the House, or Senate (federal or state!) can be put through impeachment proceedings, particularly for what the Constitution calls “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” But it’s a difficult process that can take months and is considered one of the most serious political balances we have.
With the accusations mounting against the president, many political pundits expect the newly-elected House to begin impeachment proceedings in the new year — but what that looks like, and how it plays out, may be unlike any other impeachment we’ve seen in US history.
What would a Trump impeachment potentially look like?
Andrew Johnson is the president some historians have likened to President Trump, and his own impeachment could offer clues as to how a potential Trump impeachment might play out.
Openly racist and populist, Johnson was impeached in 1868 after he fired his Secretary of War without going through proper democratic channels. After being brought up on impeachment charges in the House, Johnson had to defend himself against the impeachment in the Senate.
Although Congress was stacked against him, the impeachment fell one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to convict, halting his removal from office. The rest of his time at the White House involved Congress essentially ignoring Johnson completely. At the end of his term, he went back to Tennessee and left politics. It would be more than 100 years before another sitting president would head down the road to impeachment.
How have recent impeachment proceedings played out?
In 1974, Congress brought three impeachment charges against President Richard Nixon for his role in the now-infamous Watergate scandal. The charges came after Nixon was accused of obstruction of justice in his attempt to hide information about several men who were involved in a break-in at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, DC. The break-in was linked to Nixon’s re-election campaign committee; the president was uncooperative in the investigation, and refused to release taped conversations he’d had on the grounds of executive privilege.
Before his impeachment proceedings could begin, Nixon became the first president in US history to resign from office, handing over the reins to his VP, Gerald Ford. Nixon avoided prosecution, and Ford eventually pardoned the president entirely. But it took far less than 100 years to get back into the impeachment cycle. A little more than 20 years later, another president faced the articles of impeachment.
Throughout his political career, President Bill Clinton dodged accusations of sexual impropriety — starting even before he was Governor of Arkansas. But it was the affair between the president and then-intern Monica Lewinsky in 1995 that eventually led Congress to charge the president with perjury and obstruction of justice in 1998.
After it was reported that the sitting president allegedly asked his former intern to lie about their sexual relationship in order to discredit a different woman who’d accused him of assault in Arkansas, Clinton testified (via closed circuit television from the White House) to a grand jury — the first, and so far only time in history that a sitting president has testified during a court proceeding.
A month later, Clinton’s grand jury testimony — in which he stated that he had never had an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky — was nationally broadcast. Three months after that, in December 1998, four impeachment articles were brought against him; the House Judiciary approved two of those four counts.
By the time the trial went to the Senate in 1999, however, the Senate couldn’t even get one-third of the two-thirds majority votes needed to remove Clinton from office. Two decades later, Clinton says he’s remorseful of his actions and their effects on the citizenry and his family. But Clinton also says that he doesn’t believe he owes Lewinsky an apology for a relationship that was not only an abuse of power on the president’s part, but that thrust the young Lewinsky unrelentingly into the public eye.
How does Trump’s situation compare?
The impeachment debate has been a marker of Trump’s presidency since the get-go. That conversation amped up in earnest after a December 2018 court filing asserted that Cohen had been instructed by Trump to pay off women who had been romantically involved with the then-candidate in exchange for their silence during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Beyond finding that Cohen had allegedly used campaign finances to pay people for their political silence, and evidence to support questionable business connections between the Trump camp and Russian special interest groups, Mueller is reportedly looking into Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey in 2017 as an additional obstruction of justice charge.
“It certainly looks like they are the kinds of offenses that would call for impeachment hearings into the conduct of the president of the United States,” veteran reporter Carl Bernstein told CNN’s Reliable Sources in December. “There’s something much more important than just impeachment going on and that is the fact that Donald Trump, for the first time in his life, is cornered.”
Even former Nixon lawyer John Dean (a man who spent several years in jail after Watergate) thinks that we’re heading down the path of impeachment, telling CNN in the same December interview that the language Mueller uses in the released documents show that there is, most likely, information implicating the president in illegal actions.
As for whether the Democratic-led House will even start impeachment proceedings, at this point it’s still a guessing game. If the findings from the Cohen case and the Russia investigation implicate the president in willful attempts to skirt various laws, then impeachment proceedings probably will go forward. Whether those proceedings would make our political climate any more or less chaotic is a whole other debate.
(Photos by Olivier Douliery/ Pool + Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)