Congressman from California hopes to provoke a White House 'intervention' to rein in an out-of-control president
Is this the first move towards ousting Donald Trump?
A Democratic congressman has filed articles of impeachment against Donald Trump, the formal start of an admittedly long shot attempt to oust the embattled US president from office.
Brad Sherman’s move comes amid the continuing fallout from Russian efforts to swing last year’s presidential election as pressure grows for White House aides to explain how much they knew.
However, it faces a number of stiff challenges. Both the House of Representatives and the Senate remain in Republican hands making it unlikely that Mr Trump will be impeached or removed from office.
Mr Sherman, a Representative from California, admitted he knew his chances were slim but said he hoped his initiative might provoke a White House “intervention” to rein in an out-of-control president.
“Perhaps uncontrollable impulses will be controlled. And perhaps the danger our nation faces will be ameliorated,” he said.
“Second, and more likely, filing articles of impeachment is the first step on a very long road. But if the impulsive incompetency continues, then eventually — many, many months from now — Republicans will join the impeachment effort.”
This week has heightened the sense of crisis surrounding the White House.
Mr Trump’s eldest son has been forced to admit he met a Russian lawyer last year in the expectation of her supplying damaging information about Hillary Clinton, his father’s opponent in the election.
Donald Trump Jr released emails showing he jumped at the offer despite being informed it was part of a Kremlin-sponsored effort to help his father.
The revelations provoked accusations of treason while Democrats are demanding that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, should lose his security clearances after it emerged he was also present at the meeting.
Mr Sherman said he was bringing his action in response to Mr Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as FBI director in May when he was investigating the Russia connection. Mr Comey himself later said he believed he was dismissed to thwart his inquiry.
That amounted to obstruction of justice, Mr Sherman explained, which was grounds for impeachment.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders, a spokeswoman for the president, dismissed the idea. “I think that is utterly and completely ridiculous and a political game at its worst,” she said.
The move has also received little support among fellow Democrats who fear it will only divide opposition to an embattled president, embolden his supporters and end in failure.
At its heart, impeachment is a partisan process based on politics and votes rather than a criminal process. It sets up the lower House of Representatives as prosecutors, presenting their case to Senators who act as the jury.
The process exists as a means of removing a public official guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanours” a sufficiently broad definition to allow a wide range of indiscretions to be taken into account.
The next step for Mr Sherman’s articles of impeachment will be to persuade the House judiciary committee to allow them to go forward for a full vote in the House of Representatives. Even if it makes it to a vote, Republicans will be confident they can prevent impeachment through force of numbers. They currently hold 240 of the 194 seats in the House of Representatives.
Were the articles to be passed, however, Mr Trump would at that point be impeached and the charges passed on to the Senate where a trial would be held with the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding.
Here the barrier to success is even higher. A two-thirds majority is needed to convict the president and remove him from office. And again, Republicans have control with a majority of two seats.
Analysts say that the Trump movement remains the strongest grass roots part of the Republican Party, giving congressmen little incentive to abandon the president as they prepare for mid-term elections next year.
Jeanne Zaino, professor of political science at Iona College, said even the Democratic leadership was content to leave Mr Trump in place, giving them an easy target in those elections. She said the deciding factor could yet be Robert Mueller, the man now leading the federal investigation into Russian meddling in the election.
“If he comes out with strong findings, at that point you may see some Republicans start to defect over to this idea but I really think that is still a stretch,” she said.
Only two presidents in history have ever been impeached – Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868. Each faced a hostile Congress and ultimately, neither was convicted or removed from office.
Richard Nixon escaped certain impeachment by resigning in 1974 before the House could vote on his role in the Watergate scandal.
The considerable barriers to success mean Mr Trump’s allies are confident their man will not be ousted.
A member of the administration, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The only way he leaves office is if one day he wakes up and just decides he has had enough.”