It’s all very well for U.S. Democrats to leap onto their chairs like mountain goats chanting, “Impeachment! Impeachment! Impeachment!” Devastated by Hillary Clinton’s defeat two years ago, they see an unprecedented opportunity in Donald Trump’s streak of bad judicial luck to rally the masses, take back Congress in November and the White House in two years. But the U.S. judicial system is set up in such a way that the president runs little risk of being dismissed before the end of his term.
The unexpected legal developments on Tuesday are certainly extraordinary: Two minutes apart, two of the most loyal members of Trump’s old guard were brought to justice. His former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted of fiscal and bank fraud. Trump remains unindicted. But his old friend runs the risk of long years in prison and could be tempted to cooperate with judges to reduce his sentence, by acknowledging Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, for example.*
Two minutes earlier, it was the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who pleaded guilty, admitting that he had paid two of Trump’s extramarital partners for their silence at Trump’s direction several days before the election, something which the president has long denied. Any American citizen would be prosecuted for similar acts, which potentially violate election financing rules. But the White House occupant isn't just anyone. Up until now, no judge has dared arraign a sitting president. There’s little chance that Special Counsel Robert Mueller, as tenacious as he is, will stray from this legal precedent.
Those who oppose Trump are reduced to fantasizing about impeachment, the process famously used in the cases of both Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.** But here as well, the scenario is largely unrealistic. First off because the House, responsible for initiating the impeachment process with at least 50 percent of the vote, is majority Republican. Not to say it won’t be majority Democrat come November. But if, hypothetically, the impeachment process were underway, it would need to be approved by two-thirds of the senators. There’s no precedent for this in U.S. history: Of the eight impeachment attempts in the past, none has succeeded. They weren’t in vain for all cases, however: Richard Nixon, for example, resigned before his appointment in front of the Senate. But to imagine that Trump would resign is to misunderstand his character. If the Democrats have a chance of overthrowing the billionaire, it’s at the ballot box rather than in court. Given the polls, nothing says they will be able to do it quickly.
*Editor’s note: To the extent Paul Manafort would be cooperating with authorities, it would more likely consist of an agreement with prosecutors, not judges. Prosecutors could recommend a reduced sentence to a judge in exchange for cooperation.
**Editor’s note: Richard Nixon was not impeached. An impeachment process was formally initiated on Feb. 6, 1974 giving the House Judiciary Committee authority to investigate whether sufficient grounds existed to impeach Nixon in connection with the Watergate scandal. Before the House could vote on impeachment resolutions, Nixon resigned from office on Aug. 9, 1974. Bill Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives but the Senate did not reach a necessary two-thirds majority agreement to fully process the impeachment, so he was acquitted.