I n early May, President Donald Trump stood in the Rose Garden of the White House. The Republican caucus had just forced the American Healthcare Act through the House of Representatives, finally making progress on a seven-year quest to repeal and replace Obamacare. Turning to the assembled Republicans, he asked: “Am I doing OK? I’m president! Can you believe it?”
Two weeks later and Mr. Trump remains president, though fewer and fewer would say he’s “doing OK”. Far from it. President Trump has had such a catastrophically bad week that many in Washington are questioning whether he will see out his first term.
‘This Russia thing’
A Kremlin-shaped cloud has lingered over the White House since Mr. Trump won last November’s election. Now it looks as though it might engulf his entire presidency.
Mr. Trump’s terrible 10 days began with the firing of FBI Director James Comey, who was leading a criminal investigation into whether Mr. Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The president confirmed in an interview the next day that “this Russia thing” had moved him to fire Mr. Comey.
Then, on May 15, the Washington Post reported that Mr. Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a meeting in the Oval Office, which took place the day after Mr. Comey’s firing. Two days later the New York Times revealed that Mr. Trump in February asked Mr. Comey to shutter his investigation into the president’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. “I hope you can let this go,” the president said, according to a memo written by Mr. Comey shortly after the meeting.
Adding to Mr. Trump’s woes, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein this week relented to growing bipartisan pressure and appointed a special counsel to oversee the investigation. Robert Mueller, who led the FBI for 12 years under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, now has the authority to look into any links between Russia and Trump campaign officials, as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”. This theoretically gives Mr. Mueller a free hand to investigate Mr. Trump’s encounters with Mr. Comey, too.
As the White House lurches from scandal to scandal, the ground appears to be shrinking beneath the president’s feet. What started as a whisper is growing louder by the day: could Donald Trump be fired?
How to impeach a president
There are two main ways that Mr. Trump could be removed from office, the most well-known of which is impeachment.
The Constitution allows Congress to remove a sitting president if enough lawmakers deem them to have committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. In the country’s 241-year history, only three presidents have undergone impeachment proceedings. Two were acquitted by the Senate and stayed in office: Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 and 1999. The third, Richard Nixon in 1974, resigned to avoid being impeached.
There are several stages to the impeachment process. First, the House of Representatives must vote on articles of impeachment, of which there can be several. If at least one of those articles receives a majority vote, the president is impeached.
The proceedings then move to the Senate, where a trial takes place overseen by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. Lawmakers from the House play the role of prosecutors, the president has defence lawyers and the Senate acts as jury. If two-thirds of senators find the president guilty, he is removed from office, and the vice-president takes his place.
The spectre of impeachment is creeping into discussions on Capitol Hill, even among members of Mr. Trump’s own party. Justin Amash, a Republican representative from Michigan, told reporters this week that if the latest Trump-Comey revelations are true, they are grounds for impeachment.
The impeachment process is political rather than legal, meaning that the president does not have to be accused of committing a crime to be indicted. There is no external authority which dictates how lawmakers interpret “high crimes and misdemeanours”, so Mr. Trump could be impeached without the investigation into his campaign’s ties with Russia revealing criminal activity.
As with Presidents Nixon and Clinton before him, the cover-up could prove more damaging than the crime. If it is confirmed that Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey to halt his investigation into Mr. Flynn’s ties with Russia, as is alleged, he could plausibly be accused of attempting to obstruct the course of justice, which is a criminal offence.
Two key elements constitute obstruction of justice. Firstly, former federal prosecutor Julie O’Sullivan told The World Weekly, the defendant has to be aware that there is an ongoing investigation. Secondly, the defendant must have “corruptly endeavoured to impede the investigation”.
The power to initiate impeachment proceedings is in the hands of the Republican leadership, which has previously been willing to overlook Mr. Trump’s misdemeanours so long as he fulfills the party’s extensive legislative agenda. As such, most analysts have long expected that the best chance of an impeachment taking place is if Democrats recapture the House in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.
However, figures such as House Speaker Paul Ryan are now less fulsome in their defence of the president, while party grandees such as former presidential candidate John McCain appear to be reaching breaking point. If Mr. Trump is so hobbled by scandal that he leaves the Republicans vulnerable to a rout in 2018, then the GOP may look to cut its losses and move forward with Vice-President Mike Pence at the helm.
The 25th Amendment
Impeachment is not the only option.
After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, lawmakers realised that if he had been comatosed rather than killed, there would have been no legal way to relieve him of the presidency. The 25th Amendment to the Constitution was subsequently introduced in 1967, allowing for the removal of a president from office if the vice-president and a majority of the cabinet informs Congress that he is “unable to discharge the power and duties of his own removal”. Should the president contest the judgement, a two-thirds vote by Congress confirms the cabinet’s decision.
Mr. Trump has not endured an assassination attempt. But, commentators increasingly argue, he is unable to carry out the “power and duties” of the presidency simply because he is not very good at his job. Those voices have grown louder this week, after it emerged that Mr. Trump disclosed “code-word” intelligence about an Islamic State plot to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.
The president has the right to declassify and share information as he sees fit. According to Richard Nephew, who served at the State Department and as director for Iran on President Obama’s National Security Council, the real problem is that “he did it without thinking it through. Whatever he said had not gone through the proper intelligence community filters.”
Moreover, Mr. Nephew told TWW, such disclosures “can impact the willingness of other foreign intelligence services to provide information to the United States.” In this case, the New York Times reports, it was Israeli intelligence that Mr. Trump revealed to the Russians.
“ISIS,” Mr. Nephew said, “now has reason to believe that there is an Israeli spy embedded in one of their towns. They’ll find out who that person is pretty quickly, and they’ll probably kill him.” The US is now in all likelihood more at risk as a result of Mr. Trump’s loose tongue.
The incident has led some to call for Mr. Trump’s national security clearance to be revoked, while Mr. Nephew suggests that allied intelligence services could now look to cut Mr. Trump out of the loop, fearing he can’t be trusted. The administration’s best defence, as articulated by National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster on Tuesday, is that Mr. Trump did not know where the information he was revealing came from, or that it was classified.
Mr. Trump’s nascent presidency is littered with examples of what critics say is a basic lack of competence or temperament. Nonetheless, as it stands, over 80% of Republicans still support him. While that endures, it remains unlikely that Mr. Pence and other members of Mr. Trump’s cabinet will deem him unfit to see out his term.
A moment of reckoning
A third option is that Mr. Trump resigns, but for now he remains defiant. Responding to the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his Russian ties, he stated that “a thorough investigation will confirm what we already know - there was no collusion between my campaign and any foreign entity.” In signature fashion, Mr. Trump subsequently tweeted that he was victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history”.
Others are less confident. A recent poll indicated that 48% of Americans think Mr. Trump should be impeached, and his approval rates remain historically low at just 38%. On Wednesday, the stock market experienced its biggest losses since September, as investors came to grips with the likelihood that the chaos consuming Washington will prevent Mr. Trump from carrying out his economic agenda.
Mr. Trump has demonstrated teflon-like resilience over the course of his embryonic political career. Nonetheless, the rate at which his problems are snowballing suggests we may be reaching a point of no return. A senior Trump administration official offered the Daily Beast a brutal appraisal of the president’s situation: “I don’t see how Trump isn’t completely fucked.”
It is a moment of reckoning for this Republican-controlled Congress. So far, Mr. Ryan and his colleagues have shown a dogged determination to put their party first. If the shoes of Mr. Trump’s Russian centipede continue to drop, they will find themselves facing a bleak choice. Either they stick with a president who is becoming increasingly toxic, or they jump ship, and impeach Donald Trump. Stay tuned.