Sans Collusion, Obstruction Charge Wouldn't Topple Trump
In a recent New Yorker piece about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the president, Jeffrey Toobin stated: "Trump’s position looks perilous. ... The portrait is of a president using every resource at his disposal to shut down an investigation — of Trump himself.” Among Democrats, this narrative has created a great deal of excitement, that Mueller will conclude that Trump’s firing of James Comey, the former FBI director, was criminal and an obstruction of justice.
Perhaps, but Democrats should temper their enthusiasm. Unless the special prosecutor can prove Trump and his inner circle conspired with the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton, it is highly unlikely Republicans on Capitol Hill will sacrifice their president for trying to quash an investigation of a non-existent crime. The same is also true if Mueller concludes Trump obstructed justice to protect someone else -- like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Republicans won’t remove Donald Trump from office for that offense.
Fair or not, as long as the GOP controls Congress, the president’s fate rests with his fellow Republicans. Mueller cannot compel them to impeach and remove Donald Trump. And since his well-received State of the Union speech this week and the recent passage of tax reform – a major legislative victory -- the president’s relationship with conservatives on The Hill has improved.
In recent weeks, mainstream Republicans have been more vocal in their defense of Trump. Sens. Lindsey Graham and Charles Grassley have sent a highly unusual letter to the Department of Justice urging a criminal investigation of the author of the dossier on Trump. That document made many highly charged claims about Trump’s ties to Vladimir Putin and even asserted the Russians had blackmail material on the president.
Moreover, multiple Republican-led investigations in Congress about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election have seemingly veered off track. Now, they are more focused on undermining the accusers of Trump -- including impugning the impartiality of career investigators at the DOJ and the FBI.
Speaker Paul Ryan, not known as a Donald Trump fan, has allowed Rep. Devin Nunes to remain chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, even though the California congressman has proved himself a fierce partisan with no interest in examining Russian efforts to sabotage our election, but rather how the Obama administration allegedly spied on the Trump campaign.
Nunes’ strategy to muddy the political waters has grown so intense that a Republican appointee at the Justice Department recently wrote to the representative, saying it would be “extraordinary reckless” for Nunes to release a classified memo that purportedly proves the Obama administration was spying on the Trump campaign and details alleged abuses at Justice and the FBI. According to the Washington Post, the memo “is now the subject of an active social media campaign (#ReleaseTheMemo) led in part by Russian-related Twitter accounts.” In fact, it now appears that after a party-line vote in the secretive committee, the memo will be made public unless the president objects, which is unlikely.
Republicans on Capitol Hill are not rallying around Trump because they love his policies and leadership style. No, it’s self-preservation.
The midterm elections are nine months away, and typically the president’s party takes a beating, especially when they control the Congress. If Republicans on Capitol Hill impeach Trump and remove him from the White House, Democratic voters would be emboldened, and the Republican Party might well convulse and splinter. Keep in mind, Trump’s approval ratings with Republicans is around 80 percent; alienating those voters would be political suicide for most congressional Republicans running for re-election.
Lastly, an obstruction of justice charge is difficult to prove because it requires the prosecutor to demonstrate the mindset of the accused. It is a subjective determination, and without strong evidence of Trump’s collusion with the Russian government, Republicans are almost assuredly going believe the commander-in-chief when he insists he did not intend to thwart justice by firing James Comey.
After all, without proof of collusion, the president has a strong argument: How can he obstruct justice by blocking the investigation of a crime that he never committed? This defense might not convince a legal scholar like Jeffrey Toobin, but the argument is strong enough to satisfy most Republicans in Congress because they know their only chance to stay in office and keep their majorities is to stick with Trump. Lucky for the president, for now that’s good enough for him to keep his job.