Updated Jan. 19 with the special counsel’s statement.
Donald Trump’s behavior as president has sparked talk of whether he could, or should, be impeached almost since his inauguration. And from the start Republicans lawmakers have consistently responded by brushing off those questions.
Whether they should continue to do so became a leading question in Washington, DC, after BuzzFeed reported late Thursday (Jan. 17) that Trump told his lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about his Russian real estate plans. Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison last month, after pleading guilty of violating campaign finance and tax laws in the Southern District of New York. Separately, he has been cooperating with a Federal Bureau of Investigation special counsel investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
In a rare statement on Jan. 18, the FBI special counsel’s office disputed parts of the story, but didn’t specify which parts: “BuzzFeed’s description of specific statements to the Special Counsel’s Office, and characterization of documents and testimony obtained by this office, regarding Michael Cohen’s Congressional testimony are not accurate.”
Pressuring a witness to lie would violate a US law against obstruction of justice, and was the first reason the House Judiciary Committee voted to proceed to the impeachment trial of Richard Nixon in July 1974.
The same Republicans who have brushed off impeachment questions in the past also set a line in the sand about what they do consider impeachable offenses, either by Trump or by previous presidents.
Any impeachment trial would have to start in the Democrat-controlled House and pass as a bill by a simple majority. It would then be investigated by a Senate committee before being heard by the full Senate. For Trump to be impeached, 67 senators would need to vote in favor of the measure, in a chamber that includes 53 Republicans. Here’s where some key Republican senators have said they stand on impeachment:
The Texas senator called impeachment proceedings “basically a futile gesture,” telling Politico in an interview published this month that there was no way that the Senate would vote to proceed on an impeachment trial with the information it had at the time.
But, he added, “if the president is actually indicted for a crime, that obviously changes everything.” Whether any sitting president can be indicted for a crime has been a matter of heated debate in legal circles. Cornyn is likely to be pressed to elaborate after the Buzzfeed report.
The Wisconsin senator said in 2017 that Trump’s dismissal of the white supremacists who killed a protester in Charlottesville, Virginia made him “uncomfortable,” but added that he saw “no grounds” for impeachment because of that. “The American people elected President Donald Trump and I’m not sure he’s changed much from what he was during the campaign,” he said at the time.
After Trump was implicated in campaign finance violations when Cohen pleaded guilty in August to the Southern District Court, Johnson mused “What did the Founders really mean by high crimes and misdemeanors? Right now it’s in the hands of the courts, and we’ll see how it plays out,” he said.
However, ahead of the 2016 election, he said breaking the law was grounds for impeachment, even if the offenses were committed before a president was elected. At the time, he was speaking about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server: “She purposefully circumvented it (the law),” he said.
Graham, the senator from South Carolina, told Fox News last December, also in relation to the Southern District charges that Trump is “always under siege.”
During the Bill Clinton impeachment trial, Graham voted against impeaching the president on the basis of his lies about “sexual relations” with former intern Monica Lewinsky. “Lying about sex wasn’t enough then for me and it’s not enough now,” he said during the Fox interview.
However, Graham did vote to impeach Clinton based on charges of obstruction of justice, because the president’s lies during the trial “turned the judicial system upside down, every way but loose,” the senator said in a speech on the House floor in 1999.
The question becomes, if a federal judge can be thrown out of office for lying and trying to fix a friend’s son’s case, can the president of the United States be removed from office for trying to fix his case?
That’s not a scholarly word, but that’s what happened. He tried to fix his case. He turned the judicial system upside down, every way but loose. He sent his friends to lie for him. He lied for himself. At any time any relevant question come up, instead of taking honorable way out, he just lied and he dug a hole, and we’re all here today because of that.
And I’m not going over the facts again because you have been bombarded with the facts. But if you believe he committed perjury and you believe he obstructed justice, the reason he did it was to fix his case.
There are 14 Republican senators in the current Congress who voted to impeach Bill Clinton during his 1999 trial, according to a USA Today calculation, and 14 House representatives.
William Barr, the president’s Republican pick for attorney general, wrote a memo to the Justice Department questioning the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, one reason some legal experts say he was considered for the new job.
But Barr has been unequivocal in saying that a sitting US president can be impeached for obstructing justice. “Obviously,” Barr wrote in the memo, “the president… can commit obstruction by sabotaging a proceedings truth-finding function.” If, for example, he “knowingly induces a witness to change testimony, [he] can be impeached.”
He gave similar testimony to the Senate:
In early December, after Southern District of New York prosecutors said in a court filing that Cohen had committed campaign finance violation at the behest of Trump, outgoing Utah senator Orrin Hatch told a CNN reporter he didn’t care because Trump was “doing a good job as president.” Hatch added that he didn’t think Trump was “involved in crimes but even then, you know, you can make anything a crime under the current laws if you want to.”
Hatch later clarified: “I don’t believe the President broke the law, but one of the core principles of our country is that no one is above the law. That means anyone who does break the law should face appropriate consequences.”
Hatch is no longer in office, so he’s got no vote on whether Trump is impeached or not.