In firing FBI Director James Comey, President Donald Trump may well have committed an impeachable offense. But anti-Trump partisans need to know it is highly unlikely he will be impeached – or even charged with anything – at least anytime soon.
That’s true even though Trump’s action in firing the man who was leading the investigation of his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia was strikingly similar to one impeachment count against President Richard Nixon after he fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate investigation in 1973.
At the least, it casts a further cloud over his struggling young administration, which has already encountered problems in trying to get Congress to enact its sweeping policy agenda.
But the political circumstances surrounding the firestorm Trump created with Tuesday’s ouster of Comey are different from those that led to Nixon’s 1974 resignation in the face of certain impeachment and conviction.
Rather than an impeachment probe, some sort of independent investigation seems more likely, judging from signs that some Senate Republicans may be moving toward the longtime Democratic call for such a probe.
Others are insisting that the Watergate comparisons are far overdrawn, so even that is not certain.
And if the Watergate affair is any guide, formal action against Trump would take a long time, if it ever happens.
Nearly 26 months passed between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation. The formal investigations only took off about nine months afterward, when the burglars convicted of breaking into Democratic Party headquarters told Judge John Sirica that higher-ups were involved.
Still, Nixon might have survived had it not been for the disclosure during the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee hearings that he had taped many Oval Office conversations, and the subsequent discovery of an incriminating conversation on the tapes.
In July 1974, the House Judiciary Committee, in a bipartisan vote led by a Democratic majority, approved three articles of impeachment against Nixon.
As an Associated Press congressional reporter at the time, I knew House approval was considered inevitable and that Nixon had lost the Senate support he needed to survive an impeachment trial.
In firing Comey, after earlier firing the New York U.S. attorney who was looking into other possible Trump-related activities, Trump may have opened himself to possible charges similar to Nixon’s.
Though he cited Comey’s mishandling of last year’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, that explanation defies common sense, and reporting by several newspapers makes it clear the real reason was his growing outrage over the Russia probe.
But it is far too early to know how far that probe will go into establishing any ties between the president’s campaign and Russia. Trump said, in his firing statement, that Comey told him three times “I am not under investigation,” but it may be too soon to know if that assurance will hold.
In one sense, Trump is weaker politically than Nixon. He was narrowly elected with a minority of the popular vote, and his job approval has hovered at 40 percent.
In the first 12 hours since he fired Comey, his main defenders have been members of his White House staff, though disapproval of Comey’s directorship is widespread – and justified.
But the investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s campaign at the heart of the firing does not seem to be nearly as far along as the Watergate investigation. There is no evidence yet that it has found anything like the revelation that Nixon ordered the Watergate cover-up.
In addition, Congress is controlled by his Republican Party. House GOP members have been especially reluctant to criticize Trump, whom they see as the vehicle for enacting a conservative policy agenda.
Still, one thing is certain: Trump again has revealed the authoritarian instincts that Republican and Democratic opponents feared.
Firing the FBI director who was leading an investigation of his campaign is worthy of the world leaders he has praised: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Erdogan, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
But Trump acted within a far different legal framework from them, in a nation where laws have always triumphed over the actions of individual men.
That ultimately happened with Nixon, and it is the likely result this time, but the path won’t be easy and the Trump presidency has more than 44 months to go.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News. Reach him by email at email@example.com.