The timing and manner of Donald Trump’s dismissal of FBI director James Comey raise an inevitable suspicion — not proof, but a suspicion — of presidential obstruction of justice. And the only real remedy for presidential obstruction of justice, if it is stubborn, is impeachment, or at least the threat of impeachment — as we learned during the Nixon administration. Because presidents have the power to gum up every other path to the revelation and reversal of serious patterns of administration misconduct, there’s a pretty low threshold for talk of the “I-word,” once said gumming up appears to be happening.
As Matthew Yglesias notes, the Republicans who control Congress can head off an impeachment crisis by un-gumming the path to justice via some investigative entity beyond Donald Trump’s control. But that will require a break with Trump that most of them do not want to make.
If the situation we are in right now gets worse for the White House, and the rest of 2017 unfolds under the shadow of unresolved allegations about Russian collusion, then serious impeachment talk will become unavoidable. One might assume that the talk would go nowhere, since the president’s party controls the congressional levers that would have to be used to formally begin proceedings. But what could ensue, though, is the realization that Republicans might privately crave impeachment more than Democrats.
Why? Absent normal legal proceedings and without the safety valve of impeachment, the only way for an aroused public to hold Trump accountable is by spanking his political party in the 2018 midterms, an election in which the White House party is almost certain to lose ground even in normal conditions. And after that, if Trump stubbornly resists any independent scrutiny of his past and present behavior, Republicans could have a nightmarish 2020 cycle in which efforts to retire Trump after one term collide with his hard kernel of GOP grassroots support, strongest among people who know little and care less about their hero’s compliance with legal and political traditions for presidential accountability. You could definitely envision a vicious primary fight followed by a difficult general election.
In those circumstances, how many conventional conservative Republicans would resist the temptation to fantasize about a deus ex machina procedure that could remove the troublesome Trump and replace him with the extremely well-known quantity of Mike Pence, perhaps just in time to change the dynamics of 2018 — or certainly 2020 — in the GOP’s favor? Conversely, Democrats might prefer to keep Donald Trump around as long as possible to indelibly stain the GOP with his misdeeds and his alarming demeanor.
This is not to say that political considerations will determine the course of events more than the facts that eventually emerge; if it turns out there is no evidence of collusion in the Russia-Trump investigation, then the president is not going to be hounded out of office for acting as though there was.
But the fact remains that the politics of impeachment or a coerced resignation are hard to predict and impossible to dismiss. In all the talk since Comey’s firing of the parallels with Nixon’s 1973 “Saturday Night Massacre” it has been largely forgotten that Nixon’s brash action was preceded just ten days earlier by the resignation of Vice-President Spiro Agnew, as part of a plea deal over bribery charges. Agnew, in some ways a precursor of Trump in his “politically incorrect” rhetoric, had been what Nixon not-so-jokingly called his “insurance policy” against impeachment. His replacement by the ever-genial Gerald Ford had a definite if hard-to-measure impact on the willingness of Democrats and Republicans alike to send the Tricky One packing.
Don’t for a moment imagine that if obstruction-of-justice allegations against the White House fester or metastasize, pols in both parties won’t be thinking of what 2018 or 2020 would look like without Donald Trump.