The Slatest

Today’s Impeach-O-Meter: How Things Could Get Worse for Trump

The first part of the formal impeachment process is finished. How’s our boy Donald looking?

Roberts, dressed in a suit, is seen in close-up.
Chief Justice John Roberts.
Jabin Botsford/Pool/Getty Images

The relaunched Impeach-O-Meter is a wildly subjective and speculative estimate of the likelihood that the House votes to impeach Trump before the end of his first term.

Could Donald Trump get into even more trouble somehow? Last week was tidily, inexorably unfavorable to him, as the House Intelligence Committee finished interviewing all the witnesses who were willing to testify about the administration’s scheme to squeeze Ukraine into announcing bogus “investigations” related to Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton. “Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?” the American ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, said. “As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes.”

Chairman Adam Schiff says that while the committee will continue to pursue its investigation to the extent possible, it is already preparing a report on what it’s found for the House Judiciary Committee, which traditionally votes on whether to recommend impeachment to the full House. (The report will purportedly be finished “soon after Congress returns from the Thanksgiving recess.”) Schiff has hinted that one reason Democrats may feel comfortable voting on impeachment before attempting to compel the testimony of uncooperative witnesses like White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former national security adviser John Bolton is that those individuals could still be called as witnesses in the Senate trial that would result from a successful House vote.

The case against Trump is already complete by the standards of objective reality, and polls say that Americans believe his conduct justifies removal from office, by a 49–44 margin in aggregate. House Democrats will likely consider this sufficient to vote to impeach, but without a wider majority in favor of removal, it’s unlikely that any Republican senators will feel pressure to convict.

All that assumes, however, that there will be no new developments in the impeachment case that could, as the political analysts say, “move the needle” further toward the country’s first-ever Senate removal of an impeached president. But there are still a few unresolved questions with the potential to make things even worse for Trump.

One is whether Bolton, Mulvaney, and Pompeo testify, and if they do, whether they incriminate the president. As Schiff has alluded to, the advantage of calling these direct witnesses to Trump’s aid-for-investigations scheme in the Senate, rather than the House, is that it removes their main opportunities to delay. A ruling on whether they are legally obligated to appear before the Senate would be made immediately by Chief Justice John Roberts, who would preside over an impeachment trial, rather than at a lower-court level and then appealed.

The Senate, however, can vote to overrule Roberts’ decisions. So this is a quadruple bank shot from a pro-impeachment perspective: First, Roberts—a conservative—would have to make a ruling that favored Democratic interests. Then, at least four Republican senators would have to vote against overruling him. Then, the affected witnesses would have to choose to respect the ruling rather than triggering a further standoff by still refusing to appear. Then, they’d have to give testimony damaging to Trump rather than relying on the old not-quite-perjury approach of claiming that they “can’t recall” any details related to the Ukraine case.

That’s a lot of steps, but they’re not individually unrealistic. Roberts is said to be concerned about maintaining the Supreme Court’s legitimacy as an ostensibly nonpartisan institution and has voted against Republican interests in the past. There are three purple-state Republican senators facing 2020 reelection races who might not want to be seen as actively helping an unpopular president cover up a scandal, and there are Trump skeptics like Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski who might vote against him on the issue as well. And while Mulvaney and Pompeo are both complicit in Trump’s conduct and have tied their own careers closely to his political legitimacy, Bolton does not appear to have been involved in promoting the Ukraine scheme and has already shown an interest in getting revenge on the president who fired him, via leaks to reporters and, presumably, material in the book he’s already agreed to write.

In addition to witnesses, Trump could be further incriminated by Ukraine-related documents held by federal agencies—material that, unlike internal White House correspondence, is subject to being released publicly under the Freedom of Information Act. State Department documents that were already released, for example, showed previously undisclosed contacts between Pompeo and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, in March 2019.

A less direct way the president’s political standing could erode during a trial is if he or one of the people in his inner circle is discovered, while impeachment is ongoing, to have engaged in other crimes related to Ukraine aside from the central scheme. Trump being Trump, this is not a far-fetched scenario. The Wall Street Journal has reported that federal prosecutors in New York are investigating whether Giuliani did anything illegal in his work with two Ukrainian clients of his who’ve been charged with making unlawful political donations in association with a campaign to remove former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Prosecutors are also reportedly seeking information on a parallel effort that the three men made to arrange business with the Ukrainian natural gas company Naftogaz. The New York Times, meanwhile, has reported that Giuliani may have sought to help two wealthy Ukrainians resolve legal problems involving the U.S. Justice Department, in exchange for their help with his Biden/2016 “research.” And on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that Giuliani met with Justice Department officials on behalf of a Venezuelan client connected to a money laundering case—and that Giuliani stayed at one of the client’s homes while meeting a Ukrainian official in Madrid about Biden et. al. That means the Venezuelan client effectively made an in-kind donation to work being done on Trump’s behalf at the same time that Giuliani was trying to get people who report to Trump to let the Venezuelan client off the hook. (Giuliani denies that he has broken any laws.)

There are also some non-Ukraine Trump crime threads that might or might not be about to unravel further. Trump’s financial records could be turned over shortly to House investigators who’ve sued to have them released, depending on Supreme Court decisions that could be made as soon as Dec. 5. Meanwhile, a federal investigation into the illegally concealed hush money payments that Trump made in 2016 to two women who’ve said they had extramarital affairs with him is reportedly still ongoing; CNN reports that National Enquirer executive David Pecker, who helped bury the stories, is cooperating with prosecutors. Finally, on Monday, a federal district court judge ruled that former White House counsel Don McGahn must comply with a congressional subpoena to testify about instances of potential Russia-related obstruction of justice that are documented in the Mueller report. As with the case about Trump’s financial records, the Supreme Court could ultimately decide to hear a full appeal of the McGahn ruling, which would mean the situation wouldn’t be resolved until later in 2020, or it could decide to just let lower-court rulings stand, which could mean McGahn might give sensational Russia testimony as a Senate impeachment trial is going on.

Those are all problems for Future Trump, though. Right now, his problem is that the case against him is solid and the public isn’t giving Democrats any reason not to keep moving toward impeaching him.

The Impeach-O-Meter is set at 98 percent.
Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo and Lisa Larson-Walker/Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images, Win McNamee/Getty Images, Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images, Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Peter Parks-Pool/Getty Images.