Donald Trump's presidency is barely four months old, but the events of the past week or so have seemed so explosively damaging to his position in the eyes of many observers that I spent part of my Tuesday morning on the phone with an Ottawa radio show explaining to Canadian listeners how the system of presidential impeachment works. It's not hard to understand why Trump has inspired a frenzy of "i-word" talk in Washington. His sacking of FBI director James Comey last week amid a federal investigation examining the Russian intervention into the 2016 election seemed more than a bit reminiscent of both Richard Nixon's attempt to obstruct an FBI probe into Watergate and Nixon's later firing of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, along with the top two officials of the Justice Department, in the "Saturday Night Massacre" of 1973. That Comey appears to have evidence demonstrating that he received personal pressure from Trump to end or limit the Russia probe has only further turned up the heat on a simmering scandal.
But while the Watergate parallels are undeniable, our current moment also bears resemblance to the early days of the process that led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton in 1998–99. When the first reports of Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky and misleading sworn testimony in the Paula Jones lawsuit emerged in the press, many pundits jumped to the conclusion that Clinton was finished as president, even predicting that he would be out of office within the week. Not only did Clinton remain to serve out his full term, but the revelation of the Lewinsky affair and Clinton's subsequent impeachment by the House of Representatives did not even put a dent in his job approval ratings (which actually increased over the course of the year). If Nixon's lesson is that messing around with an active law enforcement investigation ultimately leads to ruin for a sitting president, Clinton's experience teaches instead that what first looks like a catastrophic political problem can be transformed into a survivable, and even winnable, partisan fight (and, no less importantly, that media analysts sometimes lose their perspective in the midst of unforeseen events).
It's common for experts to say that impeachment is less a legal than a political process, but that observation can have several different meanings. First, it reflects that the constitutional language is brief and vague with respect to what presidential acts are properly considered impeachable offenses—"treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors"—and that interpretation of these terms falls in practice to the (elected) legislative branch rather than, as would otherwise be the case, the federal judiciary. Second, it takes into account that it's possible to imagine acceptable grounds for impeachment that are not technically against the law but violate the president's oath of office and deeply threaten the national interest (such as an abuse of the pardon power or excessive entanglement with foreign states). Third, it recognizes that debates over the impeachment and removal of a president are inescapably bound up in partisan and other "political" motivations; as in any other issue before the government, where you stand is, at least in part, a function of where you sit.
More broadly, the impeachment process is political because it involves the potential reversal of a national election. The question of democratic legitimacy is—properly, I think—central to discussions of impeachment. It is important for the stability and credibility of our system of government that such an act be widely viewed by the American public as an appropriate response to serious wrongdoing, not merely an exercise in partisan vengeance. And the public is not likely to come around to such a view quickly or easily.
It's easy to forget in retrospect how long the Watergate scandal lasted until Congress was ready to act on articles of impeachment—and how even then, Nixon's fate was not sealed until the release of the "smoking gun" tape that proved his involvement in the coverup from its earliest stages. Republican senators then abandoned Nixon's defense, concluding that even their own party's voters would accept his removal from office under such circumstances. In the Clinton case, neither impeachment nor conviction was supported by a majority of citizens. Republicans failed to convince the American people that Clinton deserved removal from office over what was widely understood as basically a sex scandal, or that their own motives in impeaching him rose above mere partisan warfare.
Many congressional Democrats, whose top leaders all served in Washington during the Clinton years, understand from that experience that looking too eager to yell "impeachment" before knowing all the facts can be politically risky, even as they must contend with a Trump-hating party base that will likely reward individual members who raise the question. And Republicans, of course, have no reason to entertain the notion at all. As much as they might privately mutter about Trump's behavior or wish that a snap of the fingers could deliver them a Mike Pence presidency instead, Republican members of Congress are not about to impeach a president of their own party. Debates over whether Trump's behavior rises to the level of an impeachable offense are certainly appropriate, but are at this stage purely academic.
What would it take for Republican support for Trump in Congress to crumble as Nixon's did in August 1974, forcing his premature departure from office? Republican politicians would not turn against Trump en masse without the support of a significant share of Republican voters, and Republican voters would only do so if persuaded by key members of the conservative media. This is not a wholly unthinkable scenario; conservative media figures have ultimately soured on every major national Republican politician in the post-Reagan era, and their enthusiasm for Trump will at least diminish substantially over his tenure in office if the mistakes and failures continue to pile up. But it's hard to imagine influential conservatives abandoning Trump for Pence unless the Republican legislative agenda runs completely aground and Trump proves fatal to the Republican Party's electoral standing in 2018. Even then, Republicans may well still resist actually joining together with Democratic opponents to support Trump's impeachment or removal from office.
So we're a long way away from impeachment proceedings being anything but a dimly hypothetical scenario. Congress could take other, less drastic steps to assert some control over Trump—perhaps starting with gaining some concessions to political normality in exchange for approving his executive-branch appointments—but the medium-term approach favored by the GOP seems to be "muddle through and hope things don't spiral too far out of control." From Republicans' point of view, that is quite possibly the best available option under the circumstances.
But it's still not a great place to be. Unlike Clinton, Trump is not popular enough to protect his party from potentially serious electoral backlash; unlike Nixon, Trump is not wounded enough to allow his party to help push him out the door and regroup with an untainted successor. Congressional Republicans find themselves in the middle of a political vise restricting their freedom of movement in both directions—and they, like Trump, aren't going anywhere anytime soon.