Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Comey’s testimony just the beginning

Trump loyalists have started circling the wagons.

Anti-Trump 'March for Truth' Demonstrators gather near the Washington Monument on 3 June (Photo: Aaron Bernstein/Getty Images)
Anti-Trump 'March for Truth' Demonstrators gather near the Washington Monument on 3 June (Photo: Aaron Bernstein/Getty Images)
Published 8 Jun 2017 

Within days of marking his 100th day in office, President Donald Trump heard the word ‘impeachment’ uttered on the floor of the House of Representatives, courtesy of Rep. Al Green, a rare Texas liberal Democrat. This week the same Congressman announced he is readying the articles of impeachment, the first step in a congressional bid to remove a sitting president.

The key dates – both procedural and political – in the melodrama are starting to be filled in. It begins this week when fired FBI director James Comey testifies before the Senate intelligence committee, extends out to the November 2018 mid-term Congressional elections and, two years after, the next presidential election.

Already the pollsters have weighed in, reporting 43% of Americans are convinced Trump should be impeached while 45 percent say ‘not so fast'. And that’s before any testimony, hearings or special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation gets rolling.

Luckily for the nation, the constitution sets out specific conditions for impeachment, none of which involves voter remorse.

Yet the distinction matters only to political junkies. What matters to all is the perception by many that the US government is in limbo. The wheels are turning toward what seems an inevitable finding that there is evidence the president attempted to obstruct an investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Mueller, the FBI director who preceded Comey, is tough, thorough and impartial. If there is evidence the President attempted to obstruct an investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Mueller will find it.

Comey's opening statement, released the day before his appearance, upped the ante. According to this account, Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser General Michael Flynn saying: 'I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.'

The spectacle of Flynn taking the Fifth Amendment for fear the evidence he provides could be used against him in a criminal case is just the beginning of a long process. In the months ahead, a substantial amount of this administration's energy will be focused on the investigation of the Trump-Russia connection rather than, say, on advancing a tax overhaul or foreign policy initiatives or fixing health care.

In the end, the question likely will come down to whether obstruction of justice qualifies as an impeachable offense. The facts are likely to matter less the political calculation of whether Republicans are better off rallying around Trump or jettisoning him like yesterday’s garbage in favour of a fresh start.

No impeachment motion can succeed unless about two dozen House Republicans turn on Trump.  The Senate would need a two-thirds majority to convict, meaning 19 GOP defections. That can’t happen today, nor should it. But will the calculation change after weeks of the slow-moving revelations – and leaks – that are inherent in a high-profile Washington investigation? Look no further than Nixon, Woodward, Bernstein and Deep Throat for a blueprint.

The August Congressional recess could be a watershed moment, as members go home and likely get an earful from constituents – both left and right – unhappy with the situation in Washington. It may allow – even force – lawmakers to take stock of the situation and do some thinking about their place in history.

Certainly, Trump loyalists have started circling the wagons. Newt Gingrich is floating a conspiracy theory that a former Hillary Clinton aide wasn’t killed in a botched robbery but rather was assassinated for sending internal party documents to WikiLeaks. Never mind that there are no facts to support that theory, it’s a way to deflect the mainstream media. It just didn’t work.

Plan B is the theory that there will be a palace coup with the Cabinet invoking the 25th Amendment to replace Trump because of Alzheimer’s disease. Again, there’s no shred of evidence beyond the president’s obvious bizarre behaviour. But efforts to shift the narrative will continue.

Sleep therapists seized on a sloppy Trump Tweet to diagnose sleep deprivation. Others are looking at the president’s weight for clues of stress.

When the smokescreen lifts, Republicans – the Tea Party folks, mainstream conservatives and moderates alike – will need to weigh the long, perhaps impossible uphill battle to retake the public perception versus the short-term fix of abandoning Trump and rallying behind a newly-minted President Mike Pence.

They’d get better conservative credentials, the removal of the distracting Tweeter-in-chief and a chance to paint themselves as patriots while eliminating the Democrats’ rallying point. It also may be the best route to salvaging their legislative agenda, even if they can’t quite agree on exactly what that agenda is.

One problem is the calculation is likely going to be based on timing, which may well mean the Democrats hold a strategic advantage. Sure, they’d like to see Trump removed but do they want that to happen before or after a surly electorate speaks in the 2018 mid-term elections?  Democrats would like nothing better than to take control of both houses of Congress before doing what by then would seem like euthanasia.

So, we’re left to ponder whether the Democrats will try to slow dance the investigation and the hearings or will Republicans sense the wind shifting and decide to cut their losses sooner rather than later.

For those who like a flutter, the odds given for Trump surviving a full four-year term are on the decline.

Either way, this situation will only get worse before it gets better.

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