WASHINGTON — The capital prides itself on keeping to a schedule and pecking order of its own. Important senators get a “heads up” from the White House about key developments and policy ideas. The White House offers talking points and surrogates to help make the case.
Now an unpredictable president is likely to upend all of the news via his 7 a.m. tweets. By early afternoon White House press secretary Sean Spicer is wont to make an SNL-worthy blunder. Check your smartphone by 6 p.m. There’s probably a mind-bending news story freshly posted.
Indeed, around that time Wednesday night came news that the Justice Department had appointed a special counsel, Robert S. Mueller, to oversee “Russian government efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election and related matters.”
It’s as if a hot and sticky fog of confusion has descended on Washington, driven by an unending pressure system of scandal and calls for investigation and impeachment.
But actually clawing a duly elected president out of office via the threat of impeachment? Not that easy.
So here is a primer for what to expect through the long summer ahead, using quotes from the last president forced out of office, Richard Nixon, to guide us.
“When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” — interview with David Frost on April 6, 1977
Presidents like to believe they’re protected from actual prosecution while in office. But that remains an open question, said Nick Akerman, who was an assistant special Watergate prosecutor.
Set aside for a moment the hurdles with proving a case of obstruction of justice, which requires proving someone intended to hinder a probe. Ackerman said that for practical purposes the mechanics of putting a sitting president through a criminal trial are difficult to imagine, adding that an indicted president would likely file a motion in court to delay the trial until after his term ended.
And should that fail, Ackerman said, Trump would have another option: He could issue a pardon for himself. Such a move would seemingly be politically disastrous, but Trump operates well beyond traditional political rules.
During the Watergate scandal, investigators were planning an indictment for Nixon after he resigned. But the prosecution halted when then-President Ford pardoned him.
“People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.” — at Nov. 17, 1973, press conference referring to questions about his taxes
The only way to know whether the president is a crook is through investigations, and the Department of Justice is playing a key role with the appointment of a special counsel.
The order establishing the special counsel allows Mueller to continue with the investigation that FBI Director James Comey, who was fired last week, had previously said he was conducting. Mueller is able to explore “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.”
Mueller, a former US attorney in Massachusetts who was appointed FBI director under George W. Bush, can also examine “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
“If the special counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the special counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters,” the order states.
The order was signed by Deputy Attorney Rod Rosenstein; his superior, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, has recused himself from the Russia probe after revelations that he did not disclose he had met with the Russian ambassador during the presidential election last year.
It’s too early to know if this latest development will preempt the other ongoing probes. The House and the Senate intelligence committees are each looking into whether Russia meddled in the US election and what potential role Trump’s campaign played. The Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday invited former FBI director James Comey — fired by Trump last week — to testify before its panel, in both open and closed settings.
After Trump suggested there may be “tapes” of a meeting he had with Comey, members of Congress asked for them. After The New York Times reported that Comey wrote memos after his meetings with Trump, members requested those, too. The White House and the FBI could ignore simple requests for information. But they can’t ignore subpoenas.
Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican and chair of the House Oversight Committee, has power to subpoena and says he’s ready to use it if tapes and memos are not handed over by next week. But all of these panels are led by Republicans — which raises questions about their impartiality.
No matter what these various probes find, impeachment would remain a difficult hurdle. No president has been impeached when his party controls Congress, and Republicans happen to have the majorities in both chambers right now.
“There are still way too many unknowns to responsibly be using the word,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican strategist and Capitol Hill veteran. “What did Trump do and did he do anything wrong? We really don’t know yet. We can be sure that things were probably handled in a ham-handed way, but that’s not a violation of the law.”
And as long as he remains popular in Republican districts, Republican opposition to Trump is unlikely.
Said former congressman Charlie Bass, a New Hampshire Republican who served during the Clinton impeachment process: “We’re not anywhere near [impeachment] at this point . . . There’s inconsistent stories. This issue is ripe for some serious investigation and getting more clarity.”
“I have never been a quitter.” — in his Aug. 8, 1974, resignation address
Will President Trump resign?
Given what we know about Trump’s personality, it’s exceedingly difficult to imagine him stepping down, backing down from a fight.
The president said as much on Wednesday during a graduation address at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut that might have doubled as a pep talk to himself.
“You can’t let them get you down,” the president said to the cadets. “You can’t let the critics and the naysayers get in the way of your dreams. I guess that’s why I — thank you. I guess that’s why we won,” Trump added, pivoting to a comment about his own election.
Trump continued: “Don’t give in. Don’t back down. And never stop doing what you know is right. Nothing worth doing ever, ever, ever came easy. And the more righteous your right, the more opposition that you will face.”
“Watergate had become the center of the media’s universe, and during the remaining year of my presidency the media tried to force everything else to revolve around it.” — “The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,’’ (1978)
Trump-induced Washington gridlock certainly is a strong possibility. Issues such as tax reform, health care, and infrastructure could be sidelined while Washington is consumed by investigations. Trump could become a virtual lame duck president after his first 100 days in office, wounded but defiant.
Unless the current FBI and Justice Department investigation yields indictments of former campaign aides, Washington could be in for a summer of smoke.