The young presidency of Donald Trump is in serious trouble. Mr Trump’s sacking of James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), set in motion a terrible two weeks for the administration. The president has suggested that his decision was politically motivated. A special counsel has been appointed to investigate potential links between several of Mr Trump’s advisers and Russian government and intelligence officials, as well as the role played by Russia in the 2016 presidential election. Members of Congress are calling for Mr Trump to be impeached. The Economist Intelligence Unit believes that the risk of impeachment has risen from low to moderate. Should the special counsel uncover a major obstruction of justice or the Republicans lose the House of Representatives (the lower house) in the 2018 mid-term elections, Mr Trump would be in a perilous position.
There are reasons why no sitting president has ever been removed from office after being impeached. The process needs broad agreement within Congress and requires some members to vote against their party’s interests. There are multiple steps. It begins with the House Judiciary Committee, which must put forward a case for why the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours”. This wording is deliberately vague to account for the many potential transgressions of a president. If the House votes by a simple majority on any article, the case is then passed to the Senate (the upper house) for trial. The chief justice presides and a select group of House members act as prosecutors. The 100 members of the Senate comprise the jury. Two-thirds of senators need to support a guilty verdict to remove the president from office. In the short history of attempted impeachments, Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 before a vote could be held in the House, and the Senate acquitted both Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1999.
Three and a half more years
Our central forecast remains that Mr Trump will see out his presidential term. This is for three reasons. First, Mr Trump will continue to be useful to the Republican Party. Congressional Republicans are focused on advancing their policy agenda, especially on tax reform and healthcare. Given that the party has majorities in both chambers of Congress, 2017‑18 represents a huge opportunity to make major changes. Mr Trump will be acquiescent on these issues, and therefore keeping him in the presidency would benefit Republicans. Launching an impeachment process would divert attention away from the Republican agenda and, we believe, damage the party’s prospects at the 2020 elections. Impeachment would reflect badly on the party, as well as on the president.
Second, Congress is highly polarised. There are various measures to assess the ideological positions of Democrats and Republicans, but according to the DW‑Nominate estimate, produced by two academics, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, Democrats are drifting towards more liberal positions and Republicans, especially, towards more conservative ones. The two parties now sit further apart than at any point since the survey began in the 1870s. Polarisation matters because it means that the parties are less likely to co-operate on any given issue, including impeachment. In our view, this means that House Republicans are less likely to vote Mr Trump out. (It also means, we think, that Democrats are more likely to push for impeachment, but we do not believe that they will have this opportunity.)
This is because of our third reason: we expect Republicans to hold on to their House majority at the November 2018 mid-term elections. The party holds 238 seats, with 218 needed for control. This sounds like a relatively slim advantage, especially given that governing parties tend to lose seats at the mid-terms. But gerrymandering and redistricting mean that few House seats are genuine contests. According to the Cook Political Report, only 23 seats are considered “highly competitive”. Political polarisation also makes it more likely that seats will not shift from one party to the other, as the ideological change required would be greater. Unless there is a major, broad-based swing against the Republican Party over the next 18 months, the Republicans will be in a strong position to keep the House.
But even though we are maintaining our central forecast that Mr Trump will remain in office, there are several major risks to this view. Taken together, they justify a rise in the likelihood of impeachment from low to moderate. The first, and most serious, is that Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to investigate potential links between Mr Trump and Russia, uncovers evidence of wrongdoing sufficiently serious to turn Republican sentiment against Mr Trump. Were this to occur, senior Republicans, such as Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, would decide that the damage done to the Republican Party would be greater if it continued to support the president than if it decided to cut him loose.
At present, there is already some evidence of dubious behaviour on the part of Mr Trump, including his open admission that Mr Comey’s investigation into Russia prompted the president to fire him. Other building-blocks towards a case of “high crimes and misdemeanours” might include Mr Comey’s account of being put under pressure by Mr Trump to drop his investigation into Michael Flynn; Mr Trump’s failure to separate himself from his business empire; and his careless handling of classified information. So far, none of these behaviours has shifted Republican sentiment, but it is possible that Mr Mueller may uncover something that makes defending Mr Trump impossible.
Next, the Republicans might lose the House (and even the Senate, but this is highly unlikely) in 2018. So far, the government’s progress on its policy agenda has been lethargic. Healthcare remains a mess, with the House passing the buck to the Senate to sort this out. Tax reform amounts to a single-pager, with no costings or thresholds, nor any consensus on how a huge tax cut would be financed. The government has watered down rather than intensified its rhetoric on “unfair” international trade agreements. It is possible that legislative lethargy, combined with the chaos emanating from the White House, might prompt voters to shift allegiance at the mid-term elections and hand control of the lower house to the Democrats. This would vastly increase the chances of an impeachment vote in the chamber. (The likelihood of the Senate approving the impeachment would remain subject to a much broader range of factors.)
Source: The Economist Intelligence Unit.