What would it take to impeach President Donald Trump? The evidence might be in the public record already.
The Brookings Institution, a research group and public policy organization, charged in a paper published Tuesday that Trump obstructed justice when he got in the way of investigations into Russian interference in the presidential election by trying to persuade FBI Director James Comey to drop the bureau's probe and then firing him.
"The public record contains substantial evidence that President Trump attempted to impede the investigations of Michael Flynn and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including by firing FBI Director James Comey," the paper says. "There is also a question as to whether President Trump conspired to obstruct justice with senior members of his administration although the public facts regarding conspiracy are less well-developed."
In the paper, "Presidential Obstruction of Justice: The Case of Donald J. Trump," Brookings researchers write that attempting to stop an investigation, "demanding the loyalty" of someone involved, requesting their help in ending the investigation, and then firing that person are acts "that have frequently resulted in obstruction convictions." Trump expressing "hope" that Comey would stop the investigation, as the former director testified, could be enough to prove that he fired him for the wrong reasons.
The Brookings Institution is known as a liberal research organization, and the study's authors have criticized Trump before. But they make the case that obstruction, conspiracy and conviction for a federal crime have been enough to impeach public officials in the past and cite the articles of impeachment drafted against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
The authors of the study note that impeachment discussions are "premature" before the end of the investigation.
Indeed, articles of impeachment have already been filed in the House of Representatives but with little support. In July, Representative Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) filed articles saying much of what the Brookings authors state in their study and accused the president of obstructing justice. The articles he wrote alleged that Trump "prevented, obstructed and impeded the administration of justice during a federal investigation." Representative Al Green (D-Texas) was the only supporting co-sponsor.
Representative Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) is filing articles of impeachment for another reason. He claims Trump failed the “presidential test of moral leadership” following white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this summer by failing to condemn the groups involved. Cohen delayed bringing his articles to the floor because of several natural disasters across the nation and the mass shooting in Las Vegas but plans to move the articles forward this month.
But the chances of impeachment and removal from office remain low with a Republican-controlled House and Senate. A majority of the House must agree to impeach on at least one of the articles of impeachment. If they do, the president is impeached, and then the Senate holds a trial in which two-thirds of senators must agree to convict. If this happens, the president is removed and banned from running for office again, and the vice president assumes the office.
But the Constitution's principles for impeachment are intentionally vague. The accusers don’t necessarily have to prove criminal wrongdoing, and they don’t necessarily have to prove criminal intent. House members would have to prove that Trump damaged the nation and that he was guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which does not actually mean criminal misconduct.
So far, only Presidents Andrew Johnson and Clinton have been impeached by the House, but both were acquitted in the Senate and spared removal from office.