The US Constitution provides for the removal of the President on impeachment for, and conviction of, “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” This week, President Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pled guilty in federal court to making illegal payments - effectively hush money - to an adult film star who was alleging an affair with the candidate. The payments violated U.S. campaign finance laws. At the same time, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was convicted in a case brought by federal prosecutors assigned to the Special Counsel’s Office. The convictions - one as a result of the defendant’s own admissions, the other resulting from a jury verdict - suggest a tightening web around the President, exposing the criminality of the President’s closest advisers and alleging the President’s complicity in some of these acts.
Cohen’s sworn confession, in particular, would seem to qualify as evidence of bribery. Cohen acknowledged that the payments were made to keep quiet those who might derail Trump’s bid for the Presidency. He also publicly alleged that these payments were made with the knowledge and oversight of the President. If Cohen wants to further minimise his exposure to prison time, he will be cooperating with federal investigators, potentially alleging greater misconduct against the President and his campaign, all of which will inform the additional charges they may bring.
Regardless of the mounting evidence, the plea agreement and conviction do not necessarily translate into an impeachment hearing. First and foremost, the decision to impeach - which is vested in the House of Representatives - is essentially a political decision - particularly in today’s fiercely partisan and divided Congress. Unlike a decision made by a grand jury or trial jury, in which jury members are sworn to make decisions based on the evidence, members of Congress make no such promise. In a House controlled by Republicans, this is manifestly so. Many of the Members appear afraid to challenge the President despite troubling evidence of his and his campaign’s relationship with Russia. Members like House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes appear intent on ignoring all evidence suggesting wrongdoing. Nunes and his allies are instead focusing their political firepower on the investigators and the civil servants at the Department of Justice and the FBI. As long as Trump continues to have the support of Republican constituents, Members are unlikely to change their stance.
And the evidence suggests that it will take far more than these convictions to get there. Even in the face of his public embrace of President Putin - a known U.S. adversary - the base just doesn’t seem to care that much. As long as they don’t care enough to demand their Representatives exercise greater oversight over the President and his actions, any Republican member of Congress will face a big political risk in taking on the President and seeking his impeachment. Likewise, Although the Senate will not have to face the question of trying the President without this initial House action, given the Republican majority in the Senate, they will likewise be loath to confront the President or his base.
The situation could change if the House majority switches to the Democratic Party in November. The change in power could signify to both Republican and Democratic members of the House that there is political room to act on the evidence surfacing in the Special Counsel’s investigation. It could also signal to all that there is decreasing tolerance for the misconduct by the President and his advisors, which could embolden all Members — including Republicans in the Senate, if they retain the majority there. At the very least, it will give Democrats far more room to aggressively oversee the Administration and push for answers to the questions raised about the President’s conduct in these convictions.
Amy Pope is an associate fellow at Chatham House and a former federal prosecutor and counsel in the US Senate