President Donald Trump’s abrupt dismissal of FBI Director James Comey has the potential to be a pivotal juncture for his presidency and for Congress. Some have already declared this a constitutional crisis, while others insist Comey’s firing was legitimate and the tempest it spawned will blow over soon.
The reality is, it depends. It depends mostly on how Republicans in Congress respond, and that, of course, depends largely on public opinion.
Here are four possible outcomes that could unfold in the coming weeks:
1. Not much. Donald Trump has survived the kinds of scandals and offenses that almost always extinguish political careers. In some cases, Trump has emerged from controversies even stronger. Exhibit A would be the exposure during the campaign of the tapes of his offensive exchanges about women with television personality Billy Bush. Not only did Trump stay in the race and win, the incident created a sense of Trump’s invincibility.
It isn’t farfetched that the tornado brewed by firing Comey could blow through Washington without lasting destruction. If Republicans in Congress remain divided in their views of the president’s action, as they are now, the status quo could return quickly. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would continue to supervise the federal investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, which could last for months or years. The congressional intelligence committees would continue their investigations into the same. Trump could promptly name a new FBI director, conceivably someone who could garner bipartisan support in the confirmation process.
Many would argue this is the most likely outcome.
2. A whole lot. Already various interest groups, leaders and commentators are using the I-word — impeachment. Social media is buzzing about it. Congressional Democrats, however, are not.
The official Democratic world seems to be following a tacit strategy of not talking about impeachment — yet. Instead, they are nearly unanimous in demanding that the Justice Department appoint a special counsel to pick up the Russia investigation.
If the administration refuses to appoint a special counsel, Democrats can be expected to ratchet up the rhetoric and citizen activism. “Cover-up” could become the new political meme.
In that climate, any future leaks or revelations about, for example, ties between Trump campaign aides or kin and Russians could become even more toxic than they are now. Within the FBI and the intelligence agencies, any existing animosity toward the president might become more bitter after Comey’s sacking. That is a recipe for more leaks from the most dangerous leakers.
If Trump loses support from his core, which hovers around 35 percent of the voters in recent polling, he will lose support from Republicans in Congress.
Still, it is hard to imagine that anything could force Republicans to green light actual impeachment proceeding. If the Democrats capture the House in the 2018 elections — a long shot — that could change.
Short of that, if the atmosphere remains overheated in Washington, any number of new revelations or Trump blunders could paralyze the administration.
3. A special counsel. Some Republicans have joined the Democratic chorus calling for a special counsel, but certainly there is no GOP groundswell.
If the Justice Department does appoint a special counsel, it doesn’t automatically follow that the entire controversy around Russian election meddling and, now, Comey’s firing, will heat up. The opposite is just as likely.
An investigation by a special counsel wouldn’t be starting from scratch but close to it. The investigations could take months at the least, plenty of time for the waters to calm. Further, the congressional investigations would come to be seen as less crucial than they are now if there were a truly independent federal investigation. Finally, a special counsel investigation offers Trump and his cadre the best opportunity for exoneration that has political credibility. It also offers the worst outcome as well.
4. A special committee. Influential Arizona Republican Senator John McCain is calling for a special committee of Congress rather than a special counsel. He argues that there needs to be a fully public inquiry into Russian meddling and possible Trump campaign ties to it. This is potentially one of the worst outcomes for Trump. The hearings would be high theater and high-octane fuel for cable news and social media.
Republicans probably would not agree to this unless, for example, the administration refuses to appoint a special counsel and then definitive evidence emerges proving new connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operations.