Here's How Donald Trump Could Actually Be Impeached

The most critical moment thus far in the federal probe into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election will arrive Thursday, when former FBI Director James Comey testifies in front of the Senate intelligence committee just weeks after he was fired by President Donald Trump.

Democratic lawmakers have already gotten a head start on drafting articles of impeachment, claiming the president obstructed justice by firing the FBI director to ease the burden of the investigation on his new White House administration. But constitutional law experts tell Newsweek the exhaustive political process to remove the president could only begin when, and if, there’s enough evidence to suggest Trump committed "treason, bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors."

Related: Experts upgrade Trump's odds of impeachment

Comey's testimony will surely be pivotal in the ongoing Russian saga enveloping the Oval Office, though it’s unclear whether his statements will add fire to calls for the president's removal, or be viewed within the same divisions currently enveloping Trump's America.

"The president stirs up a lot of emotions in people," Saikrishna Bangalore Prakash, a James Monroe distinguished professor of law at the University of Virginia and senior fellow at the Miller Center, tells Newsweek. "You're going to find a lot of people will go into Comey's testimony who hate Trump, and are inclined to think he’s already committed an impeachable offense, while others who love Trump will try to find falsities left and right in what he says."

Impeachment, which allows Congress to remove presidents before the close of their terms, begins when the House of Representatives votes on one or more articles of impeachment and at least one of those receive a majority vote. A chief justice of the Supreme Court then oversees a political trial in the Senate, in which a two-thirds vote is needed to force the president’s removal.

A president’s lawyers will spar with a coalition of House lawmakers (called managers throughout the impeachment trials), and the process can take years. If an impeachment is successful and a president is found guilty, he or she will immediately be removed and replaced by the vice president. Impeachments have only happened three times. Former Presidents Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton were impeached but acquitted in 1868 and 1998-1999 respectively, while President Nixon resigned to avoid his 1974 impeachment.

Trump reportedly told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak he fired Comey after facing “great pressure because of Russia,” and noting, "I’m not under investigation." 

Democratic Representative Al Green of Texas says that’s enough to say the president in fact obstructed justice in an attempt to weaken the federal investigation into his campaign and administration. Other lawmakers have pointed to Trump’s various international business dealings and the Trump Organization’s profiting off the presidency as other grounds for impeachment, though the immediate focus has largely rested on the Russian investigation.

"This is about my position. This is about what I believe. And this is where I stand. I will not be moved. The President must be impeached," Green said May 17. "For those who do not know, impeachment does not mean that the President would be found guilty. It simply means that the House of Representatives will bring charges against the President. It's similar to an indictment but not quite the same thing."

But grounds for impeachment lie in an "opaque" and highly debatable gray area, experts say. The removal process is entirely political, and does not equate to any criminal charges or convictions.

Whether Comey provides a statement potentially capable of swaying right-leaning voters and independents’ support for Trump depends on what attitude the former FBI director brings to the table Thursday afternoon.

"The real question is which Comey shows up to testify: the talkative insider dying to dish the inside scoop on Trump's bizarre and increasingly unpredictable antics, or the tight-lipped G-man who keeps his own counsel and answers every second question with a no-comment," Jens David Ohlin, associate dean and law professor at Cornell Law School, tells Newsweek. "If it's the former it will be an unparalleled D.C. summer blockbuster that will provoke an epic Trump tweet-storm meltdown.  But if it's the latter it will be an anticlimactic box office flop."

While Nixon and his administration attempted to argue impeachment cases needed to focus on a federal crime, Clinton’s opponents said his lies to the American public were all that were needed for his removal process to begin. Whereas the public and many Nixon voters eventually denounced Nixon and demanded his immediate resignation or impeachment, Clinton’s saga never fully amounted to the same level of criticism, allowing him to remain in office, albeit further embattled than ever.

What makes impeachment such a debatable issue is that any offense of an elected leader in the White House could eventually amount to what some consider a "high crime." The term, adapted from English law, traditionally provides parliament the power to hold anyone accountable for committing severe crimes that aren’t necessarily felonies.

"Impeachment is partly a perception question,” Prakash says. "Imagine Trump’s had several conversations with Vladimir Putin about how to harm Hillary Clinton’s prospects. There will be plenty of people who think it’s an impeachable offense, and others who would say it’s terrible, bad judgement, but doesn’t rise to their level of what an impeachable offense is."

Prakash says that such a high level of collusion with the Russian leader "would be damaging whether or not it’s impeachable," but that a GOP-controlled House may be less likely to kick off the process to remove a Republican president if support for impeachment from their constituents and independent voters wasn’t high enough.

As of now, polls show support for Trump's impeachment is higher than his approval ratings.

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