Don't Hold Your Breath Over Trump Being Impeached

by Joseph D. Lyons
Zach Gibson/Getty Images News/Getty Images

James Comey's testimony Thursday could create a foundation for potential charges of obstruction of justice against President Donald Trump — or could it?

In Comey's written testimony released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, the former FBI director explained that he was pressured by President Trump to offer his loyalty. He also was told to "lift the cloud" of the Russia investigation and asked to "let it go" when speaking about former national security adviser Michael Flynn. So given all we've seen so far, could Comey's testimony get Trump impeached? Don't hold your breath.

Comey's written testimony provides little doubt about what happened between the former director and Trump — assuming you believe his accounts that were both written down immediately and shared with his colleagues at the Bureau. But that doesn't mean Trump is on the verge of impeachment.

The first step would be to establish the basis of some sort of crime. According to Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

But what are "high crimes and misdemeanors" in this context? Basically what the House of Representatives decides.

That's because the House is the legislative body that moves forward on impeaching, or charging the president. And according to experts who spoke with The Guardian, it isn't a clear move to impeachment with Comey's statement, because there needs to be more evidence for the obstruction of justice allegation. Richard Painter, ethics counsel to the George W. Bush administration, explained why the former director's current statement might not be enough, even though the evidence points in that direction.

The key question is whether there was a threat to fire Comey if he did not do what he was told. A lot would depend on if there were other witnesses who, say, hear Trump said "I'm going to fire him if he doesn't drop the case" or if he was on tape saying "I will fire you if you don't" — that would be clear-cut evidence. But there is certainly enough for the House and Senate judiciary committees to start holding hearings and calling witnesses.

Without a clear smoking gun, like Trump on tape threatening to fire Comey, House Republicans can ignore it. Ultimately, they will do what's in their best interest politically. As Vox's Lee Drutman argues, impeaching Trump would be terrible for the Republican Party, causing internal divisions and strife.

"Given the uncertain calculus behind impeaching Trump, and the need for a large number of congressional Republicans to all get on the same page to make impeachment successful, the case for impeachment will need to be incredibly compelling — on both political and evidentiary grounds," he writes, adding that internal divisions would be the main obstacle to impeachment.

For now, even after Comey's testimony, Republicans will likely try to hold on to hope of repealing Obamacare and passing tax breaks for the rich rather than move through impeachment proceedings on someone in their own party.