Liberals want President Donald Trump out of office, and they don’t want to wait until 2020 for that to happen. A NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month found that 41 percent of Americans support impeaching him, a group that includes megadonor Tom Steyer, the 58 House Democrats who have voted to debate impeachment, and seemingly everyone who marched on Saturday. The Russia investigation has even led some Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, to wonder whether he will finish his term.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume the worst: that Robert Mueller, the special counsel leading the inquiry for the Justice Department, uncovers direct evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Maybe that news becomes public through indictments against Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and his son, Donald Trump Jr., that outline how they served as intermediaries with a foreign power to tip the election in his favor. Maybe it comes as testimony from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, as part of the plea agreement he struck in December, or from Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, if he opts for a similar one. Maybe it appears in a report Mueller sends to Congress for potential impeachment charges against Trump himself.
If that happens—or even if Mueller’s findings come close to direct proof, but fall just short—it would be a seismic moment for American politics and a crisis of legitimacy for Trump’s presidency. But even then, it’s hard to see how it would remove him from office before 2020, as so many of his opponents seem convinced will happen.
How the Russia investigation will end is anyone’s guess. We’ve only heard from Mueller once, and briefly, since he took over the Russia investigation in May. “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability,” he said on the day Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced his appointment.
Washington is a leaky place, especially in the Trump era. Russia-related developments make news on a regular basis. The sources for these scoops, often identified as “officials familiar with the investigation,” could be almost anyone: FBI agents commandeered by Mueller’s team, Justice Department officials briefed on key developments, staffers working on the multiple congressional committees also investigating the same matters, or even those under investigation themselves. But the special counsel’s office appears to be airtight. As far as I can tell, no credible news outlet has reported anything that could have only come from Mueller’s team.
Thus, the public is only getting partial, secondhand perspectives about what the special counsel is doing—and sometimes finding out about key events weeks or months after they occur. Mueller’s team carried out a daylight raid on Manafort’s suburban Virginia home on July 26 last year; it didn’t become public knowledge until The Wall Street Journal reported it on August 9. Federal agents arrested Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos at Dulles airport outside D.C. on July 27, then kept it secret until prosecutors unsealed his guilty plea for making false statements on October 30.
What this tells us is humbling: We know very little about what Mueller is doing, what he knows, or what his endgame might be.
At the same time, we know quite a bit about the Trump team’s interactions with Russians during and after the campaign. We know, for instance, that Trump and his family welcomed Russian help against Clinton. Rob Goldstone, a British publicist for a Russian oligarch’s son, emailed Donald Trump Jr. in June 2016 to offer him damaging information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government. “If it’s what you say I love it,” the president’s eldest son replied. From there, Donald Jr., Kushner, and Manafort met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in Trump Tower on June 9. Everyone present at that meeting has now denied that any damaging information was exchanged, and instead claimed the offer was a pretext to discuss the current freeze in Russian-American adoptions.
The following month, shortly after stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee appeared online, then-candidate Trump invited the Russian government to release deleted emails from from the private email server Clinton had operated as secretary of state. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said, looking directly into the television cameras. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Trump later claimed he was being sarcastic. It was his last press conference before the election.
We also know that Trump campaign officials didn’t actively dissuade efforts to make contact with Moscow during the election. In Mueller’s first wave of indictments in October, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of lying to investigators about his contacts with Russians claiming to have “dirt” on Clinton. In court filings, Papadopoulos recounted an unnamed Russian professor who told him in April of 2016 that the dirt included thousands of Clinton’s emails, a claim made months before the Democratic National Committee publicly revealed it had been targeted in cyberattacks.
And every week seems to bring news of another avenue of investigation. Last Wednesday, for instance, BuzzFeed reported that U.S. investigators are poring over records of suspicious payments by the Russian embassy in Washington. McClatchy reported the next day that the FBI is investigating connections between Russian banker Alexander Torshin, a life member of the National Rifle Association, illegally funneled foreign cash into that organization to aid Trump’s candidacy. (Neither outlet indicated a connection between the two stories.)
It’s possible that these and similar stories could lead to damning conclusions. But there’s another potential explanation for the endless series of twists in the investigation: Mueller’s reputation for thoroughness.
Consider his review of how the NFL handled former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice’s initial two-week suspension for punching his then-fiancée in 2014. When the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official had given footage of the assault to a woman in the league’s New York office before TMZ published it months later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell asked Mueller and his law firm to investigate whether the league knew about a tape of the assault before it handed down its lenient punishment. Mueller’s final report describes a methodical and unsparing search for evidence. He and his team interviewed 50 NFL employees, including Goodell, as well as nearly two hundred female “employees, contractors, vendors, or interns” who may have been in the office on that day. He then searched every NFL executive’s phone logs and read their text messages for incriminating conversations, searched “more than 400” league computers for digital traces. Finally, he built a database of every incoming call to the NFL’s New York office on the day in question, and called each of the 958 people on it to see if they had sent in the tape.
Eventually, Mueller concluded that there was no evidence that anyone in the office had seen the footage before TMZ published it, effectively vindicating Goodell and the league on that specific question. But the takeaway here is that even if Mueller finds damning evidence in the far larger Russia investigation, he’s also likely chasing a lot of dead ends at the same time. Until he makes his findings public, the American public isn’t always in a good position to distinguish between the two.
But let’s say, hypothetically, that Mueller does find evidence that implicates Trump in criminal behavior. Most of the public debate revolves around the question of whether Trump and his associates “colluded” with Moscow, but this is slightly misleading: There’s no crime of “collusion” in federal law. George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason has instead argued that charges could be brought under federal conspiracy statutes, which have been used in electoral fraud cases before.
In a typical investigation, Mueller’s path here would be straightforward: present the evidence to a grand jury, get an indictment, take the defendant to trial, and obtain a conviction. But Trump is unique. There’s an ongoing debate in legal circles over whether the Justice Department has the power to indict a sitting president. History offers little guidance: Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski named Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator to avoid the issue, while Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr argued he could lawfully indict Bill Clinton for perjury and obstruction but opted to send a report to Congress instead.
Mueller may instead conclude that Trump obstructed justice by firing FBI Director James Comey last May, possibly to impede the Russia investigation or the probe into Flynn’s lies during an FBI interview last January. Legal scholars generally agree that Trump may have committed obstruction of justice as defined in federal law, although the criminal statute requires that prosecutors prove he acted with a corrupt intent.
Obstruction of justice and the presidency have a special history. The House of Representatives impeached Clinton for it in 1998, along with perjury, and considered charging Nixon with it before his resignation during the Watergate crisis. (The only other impeachment attempt—that of Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction—was a partisan affair rooted in constitutional issues, not criminal ones.) Obstructing justice is a fundamental violation of a president’s oath of office, so Congress’s impeachment powers are generally a better tool for remedying it.
If Mueller sends a report to the current Republican-controlled House, it’s an open question whether Speaker Paul Ryan will even allow a vote on impeachment charges. Ryan in particular, and congressional Republicans in general, often avoid criticizing Trump’s most inflammatory remarks, let alone taking concrete action to rein in his actions. House Democrats, on the other hand, could emerge from this year’s midterm elections in a strong position to pass impeachment resolutions by a majority vote.
From there, the ball goes to the Senate’s court, where impeachment efforts would likely fall apart. The Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to remove presidents from office. Senate Democrats need to run the board to retake the chamber this fall, and would then need the votes of 15 to 17 GOP senators to remove a president whose grip on the Republican base has never wavered.
And that’s the easy path. There’s been no shortage of chatter about the 25th Amendment, which allows the Cabinet to remove an incapacitated president from power in an emergency. But if elected members of Congress wouldn’t oust Trump for Russia-related crimes, it’s hard to imagine why a handpicked team of political allies would do so instead. Other esoteric liberal plans, like Lawrence Lessig’s pathway for Ryan to constitutionally install Clinton as president, are downright loopy.
Political reality doesn’t devalue Mueller’s work; it should only change how we should process it. There’s comfort for Trump’s opponents in thinking that his presidency will end as stunningly as it began—that truth and justice will naturally prevail, and that normalcy is just over the horizon. The reality is as bracing as it is galvanizing: Trump isn’t going anywhere, so the only sure way to remove him from office is for citizens to vote accordingly. The next 1,016 days would be better spent organizing for that outcome, rather than hoping for a different one.