Impeachment is not a word people throw around lightly in Washington, but claims that 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 his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
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.
What is Mr Trump accused of doing wrong?
Lawmakers in both parties were already concerned 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 that Mr Trump’s alleged request to Mr Comey — which the White House has denied — 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.
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 Misdemeanours”. 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.
How could Mr Trump be removed from office?
Apart from being booted out by the electorate at the next election in 2020, there are two main ways of ejecting the president. One is via the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, introduced in 1967, which allows for his removal if he is judged to be unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. While some Democratic 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 of Representatives 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 two-thirds majority to eject the president from office.
A number of historical episodes are relevant here. President Clinton was impeached in 1998 for attempting to cover up an affair with Monica Lewinsky; but the bid to eject him from office was voted down in the Senate. President Nixon resigned before the House could impeach him over the Watergate scandal. Back in the 19th century Andrew Johnson narrowly escaped removal from office in a Senate vote.
How does this relate to the appointment of a special counsel?
Robert Mueller, the former FBI director, was named on Wednesday to serve as special counsel, overseeing the investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the election and any ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein said he was putting the inquiries into the hands of someone with a “degree of independence from the normal chain of command” because of the unique circumstances surrounding the affair.
Democrats have long been demanding that an independent figure look into allegations that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, and the decision dramatically intensifies the pressure on the White House. While the House and Senate intelligence committees are already looking into the matter, progress has been hampered by partisan squabbles. Meanwhile the FBI, which has also been examining the issue, lacks a director after Mr Comey’s sudden removal by Mr Trump.
Mr Mueller’s ambit allows him to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation” into the Russia matter. This would appear to encompass looking into any allegations of obstruction of justice. It also allows him to pursue any criminal prosecutions stemming from the investigation. Any question of impeaching the president would ultimately remain a matter for Congress.
Who are the other key players now?
With Republicans in control of the House, the chances of Congressional moves against the president will depend on the mood among the Republican leadership and how they read the electorate’s response to the Trump scandals.
Among the key players in the House are speaker Paul Ryan, who is now supporting calls for memos and recordings of meetings between the president and Mr Comey to be handed over to a key committee, as well as leader Kevin McCarthy, who is a close ally of Mr Trump’s.
In the Senate Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader, is the central figure, alongside players including Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate intelligence committee, which is looking into the Russia matter. On Wednesday Mr Burr’s committee called Mr Comey to testify and demanded to see any of his notes on communications with senior White House officials.
To date most Republicans have been unwilling to openly oppose the president and his legions of supporters, who helped them clinch not only the White House but both wings of Congress. As such, analysts have tended to assume a move to impeach is unlikely unless the Democrats win control of the House in midterm elections in 2018.
However, for a growing number of Republicans the option of ignoring the scandal is becoming untenable. John McCain, the Arizona Republican senator, did not speak for himself only when he said problems engulfing Mr Trump were nearing “Watergate size and scale”.
If Congress does ultimately go down the impeachment route it would leave the country in a fragile place. Laurence Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School and a former counsellor to President Barack Obama, points out that the millions of voters who supported Mr Trump will see this as a manoeuvre by Democrats to nullify the election result.
Nevertheless, 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 said.
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