Can Donald Trump Be Impeached for Sharing Classified Information With Russia?

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A billboard showing a picture of President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen through pedestrians in Danilovgrad, Montenegro, on November 16, 2016. Stevo Vasiljevic/Reuters

No matter what the White House says, it's looking as if President Donald Trump probably shared classified intelligence about the Islamic State group (ISIS) with Russia last week. And he's probably going to get away with it.

The Washington Post published an exclusive story Monday alleging that Trump divulged secret information during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. In notifying them about a potential ISIS threat involving laptops on airplanes, officials told the Post, he endangered an intelligence source and "revealed more information to the Russian ambassador than we have shared with our own allies." The Post, citing security concerns, did not go into further detail about what the intelligence said.

Related: Trump and the White House can't agree on whether he gave Russia ISIS Intel: A timeline

The cries to impeach Trump grew louder, even after he tweeted Tuesday that he had "the absolute right" to "share with Russia." Former CIA Director Leon Panetta chastised the president in blunt terms on CNN, arguing that "he cannot just say whatever the hell he wants and expect it doesn't carry consequences."

But it's doubtful Trump will actually be removed from office over this. It's a complicated situation, according to University of Texas School of Law professor Stephen Vladeck, and involves answering two questions: Did Trump break the law? And if so, will it be enforced?

"The legal reality is that we're in uncharted territory," Vladeck, a national security and constitutional law expert, tells Newsweek. "There are things presidents just don't do, whether or not it's clear that those things are legal."

According to the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, classified information "is information created or received by an agency of the federal government or a government contractor that would damage national security if improperly released." Generally, giving classified information to someone who's unauthorized is illegal, as laid out in the U.S. Code. But the most recent classification system, set up in 2009 under President Barack Obama, allows a person who originally classifies a piece of information (or his or her successor or supervisor) to declassify it—Trump included.

This is the first place where the Trump-Russia scenario gets messy, as Vladeck tells Newsweek. "It's true the president has very broad power over national security information," he says, but that power isn't necessarily absolute.

While some, like Harvard University professor and Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman, argue that Trump has the authority to declassify this kind of information and decide who to tell it to, Vladeck isn't convinced it's an open-and-shut case. He argues that there's a statute that prohibits people, presidents included, from disclosing information relating to national defense.

In either case, just to make it messier, Trump might not have actually declassified whatever he told the Russians.

Trump tweeted that he shared "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety" for "humanitarian reasons." But he hasn't given further details, and the Post didn't publish everything it knew "at the urging of officials who warned that revealing them would jeopardize important intelligence capabilities." As The New York Times noted, this indicates the information is still too sensitive to release.

"When the president declassifies something, that usually means that going forward we can all talk about it," Vladeck says. "The government is basically claiming the president had the authority to disclose it without declassifying it."

There's not much of a precedent for that.

Moving on to impeachment, according to the Constitution, presidents, vice presidents and other civil officers can be removed from office only "on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors." That Trump told Russia the information probably isn't treason, as Vox explained, because the U.S. is not at war with Russia. That means he did not violate the Constitution, which says that "treason against the United States shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."

Moreover, even if Trump's actions did amount to treason—or even another crime—he still probably wouldn't face tough consequences, because Congress would have to prosecute him. Both the House and Senate are controlled by his party, the Republicans.

"The problem here is not that Congress lacks the power. It's that Congress lacks the willpower," Vladeck says.

Despite the fact that 48 percent of Americans say they support impeaching the president, unless there's a huge shift in the way lawmakers are leaning, a case against Trump for the Russia disclosure isn't going anywhere. That leaves the U.S. to deal with other kinds of fallout from this scandal, like the fact that our allies might not feel safe sharing information with us anymore.

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