It has been a crazy couple of weeks, even by the standards of the Trump administration. Every bit of news that has come out has seemed to put Trump's presidency on shakier ground, to the point where now not only Democrats, but even a handful of Republicans are starting to toss around the word "impeachment."
Would Republicans actually move to impeach a Republican president, even one as marginally Republican as Donald Trump? Some think that the presence of Mike Pence, a darling in conservative circles, would make it easier for GOP leaders to get on an impeachment bandwagon. And there are reasons that leadership might be happier with Trump gone. For one thing, it would allow them to resume work on their legislative agenda, which has mostly ground to a halt thanks to the around-the-clock scandals connected to Trump.
But, barring some major, irrefutable revelation about Trump, he's not going anywhere as long as the GOP controls Congress. As former Nixon White House counsel John Dean told Democracy Now's Amy Goodman in February, as long as Trump doesn't openly buck Congress, he's safe:
"Right today, given the fact that the House and Senate are controlled by the Republicans, they’re not going to impeach their president. As long as he gives them what they want and signs into legislation or signs into law a lot of the things that they’ve had in their dreams for many years, they’re not going to give him any problem. So—and he’s not going to give them any problem, because he doesn’t want to have a fight with them. So, it’s going to be a while. Impeachment is not a legal process. It’s a quasi-legal process, but it’s primarily a political process. And we’re not there yet. Now, a lot of people might like it. It’s not going to happen until the political process reaches that stage."
Dean is correct. Impeachment isn't like a criminal trial. The only penalties connected to it are removal from office, and the inability to "hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States." Yes, after those words the Constitution does say that the person removed from office is "liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law." But as we have seen in the case of Bill Clinton, a political figure can be impeached over a matter that isn't even illegal in most of the United States.
Republicans don't know (or pretend not to know) a lot about many things. But they are astute political historians. They have to be aware of this fact: at the moment, only two presidents have been impeached by the House and tried by the Senate -- Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. And what do those two presidents have in common? They were both Democrats. It doesn't matter that Johnson and Clinton came from two different times and very different versions of the Democratic party. The fact that they both had a "D" after their name helps the Republican narrative about Democratic "corruption."
Johnson and Clinton were both impeached by their political opponents. Richard Nixon would have been in the same situation had he not resigned before his impeachment could begin, since Democrats controlled Congress. A Republican-led impeachment of Trump, no matter how attractive Mike Pence may be as a replacement, would be precedent setting. And one thing we know about Paul Ryan and the GOP House leadership, they are not going to set a precedent like that unless they see no other choice.
Some observers have mused about when Republicans will start putting "country over party." If you haven't been a political observer as long as I have, let me answer that question. Republicans never put country over party, unless by doing so they believe it will help them politically. And then it happens largely by coincidence. Republicans, with very few exceptions, are only interested in power. If the interests of the country coincide with GOP interests, fine. If not, sorry about your luck, America!
Paul Krugman said as much in his New York Times column on May 19:
It has become painfully clear, however, that Republicans have no intention of exercising any real oversight over a president who is obviously emotionally unstable, seems to have cognitive issues and is doing a very good imitation of being an agent of a hostile foreign power.
They may make a few gestures toward accountability in the face of bad poll numbers, but there is not a hint that any important figures in the party care enough about the Constitution or the national interest to take a stand.
So if each day's news brings you more hope that impeachment proceedings will soon begin, "abandon hope all ye who enter here." It ain't gonna happen. Not at least until after the 2018 midterms, if Democrats manage to regain control of the House. Until then we're all just going to have to make sure we're strapped in tight, because if the last four months are any indication, we're in for a hell of a ride.