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To impeach or not impeach Trump is becoming a real question

House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler

House Judiciary Committee ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler on Nov. 14 in Washington. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla

Plausible impeachability

Google searches for “How to impeach a president” surged 4,850% on Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump was elected president. But in the 25 months since, few in Congress — even among Trump's most strident Democratic foes — argued there was a serious case to be made for so drastic an action. Now they are seeing possibilities.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said there is evidence in prosecutors' filings for the sentencing of Michael Cohen, Trump's former personal lawyer and fixer, that the president is "at the center of a massive fraud." 

If it's proved that Trump directed illegal hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — which Cohen admitted were violations of campaign finance law — to keep quiet about their affairs with him, "they would be impeachable offenses," Nadler said on CNN's "State of the Union." But he also said: "Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question."

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said on ABC's "This Week" that the available facts about Trump are "beyond the stage that led to the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, whether or not you think that that was worthy of impeachment.”

But Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent aligned with Democrats, cautioned on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the case from what's been made public so far isn't strong enough. "If impeachment is moved forward on the evidence that we have now, at least a third of the country would think it was just political revenge and a coup against the president," he said.

The big questions now: What is still to come? What, if anything, do prosecutors in the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office have beyond Cohen's say-so that he made the Daniels and McDougal payoffs at Trump's direction and sought to conceal them? Is there evidence of collusion with Russian election interference, obstruction of justice or other potential crimes hidden in the redactions from special counsel Robert Mueller's sentencing memos on Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, or in other shoes yet to drop?

The Washington Post reports Russians interacted with least 14 Trump associates during the campaign and transition, both with offers of political help and support for the Trump Tower Moscow project. The communications occurred against what Mueller's prosecutors described as a backdrop of “sustained efforts by the Russian government to interfere with the ... election." Denials by Trump and his aides of such contacts have proved false. Even if he is never charged, the investigations exposed the culture of lying that has surrounded Trump, both in and out of office, writes The Associated Press.

GOP jitters

Republicans fear the mounting revelations in the Trump investigations have heightened the legal and political danger to his presidency and could consume the rest of the party as well, according to The Washington Post.

Rather than building a war room to manage the crises, the Trump White House is understaffed, stuck in a bunker mentality and largely resigned to a plan to wing it, the report said. Some Trump allies don't think he can count on the congressional GOP either.

“The Democrats are going to weaponize the Mueller report and the president needs a team that can go to the mattresses,” said Steve Bannon. “The president can’t trust the GOP to be there when it counts. ... They don’t feel any sense of duty or responsibility to stand with Trump.” 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who appeared on several Sunday talk shows, called the latest filings from prosecutors “relevant” in judging Trump’s fitness for office. “I believe that Mr. Mueller’s probe should continue and move forward unimpeded,” Rubio said. He also warned it would be a "terrible mistake" if Trump pardoned Manafort, a possibility Trump has left open.

Schiff: Orange may suit him

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), expected to become chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in January, said Trump faces the "real prospect of jail time" after leaving the White House.

Schiff said the documents from New York federal prosecutors implicating Trump in Cohen's crimes suggest  the "president of the United States not only coordinated, but directed an illegal campaign scheme" to alter the outcome of the 2016 election.

"My takeaway is there's a very real prospect that on the day Donald Trump leaves office, the Justice Department may indict him," Schiff said on CBS' "Face the Nation." 

Janison: Served him wrong

Maybe they were the "best people" when Trump hired them. After he fires them, it's best not to remind him of that.

Trump tweeted the other day that former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was "lazy as hell" and "dumb as a rock ... I couldn’t get rid of him fast enough." That came after Tillerson's nonshocking revelation that Trump was "pretty undisciplined" and "doesn't like to read." 

As Newsday's Dan Janison notes, Tillerson has plenty of company among administration exiles who left on unamicable terms, from Steve Bannon ("lost his mind," Trump said) to Omarosa Manigault Newman ("crazed, crying lowlife ... dog"), as well as from his business/personal side, Cohen ("weak person”). With others who went out the door — or are soon to follow them — yet to be heard from, watch for more revisionist performance reviews about any who speak up.

Where's the chief?

Trump's top choice to replace chief of staff John Kelly, Nick Ayers, said Sunday he won't be taking the job.

Ayers, who is now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence, wouldn't commit to serving in the post for more than three months for family reasons. Trump wants a two-year pledge, so he is now looking at four other candidates, including budget director Mick Mulvaney, The Associated Press reported, citing a person familiar with the president's thinking.

Bloomberg News said other possibilities include Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Freedom Caucus; U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer; and acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker.

It still wasn't clear whether Kelly or Trump made the decision for him to leave by the end of the year. "I don't know, to be perfectly honest," top economic adviser Larry  Kudlow said when asked on "Fox News Sunday" if Kelly was fired. "I think it was very amicable, all right? That's what I understand."

'Hard deadline' for China

Lighthizer said on "Face the Nation" he considers March 1 "a hard deadline" to reach a deal on trade with China, and if that doesn't happen, Trump will impose new tariffs.

Kudlow tried to put a hopeful spin on prospects for an agreement, saying there were “some very positive, promising statements” out of Beijing.

What else is happening:

  • A correction: An item in The 1600 on Nov. 30 described Trump's written responses to Mueller's questions as sworn answers. They were not described as such in the statement by Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow about the submission. 
  • William Barr is now Trump's nominee for attorney general, but last year, White House officials approached him about leading the president's defense team in the Mueller investigation, Yahoo News reports. Barr told Trump he had other obligations.
  • Trump has told Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit a $750 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2020, an about-face from the president's previous pledge to trim defense spending, Politico reported.
  • Jared Kushner has remained the top defender inside the White House of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since the Saudi leader was implicated in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, The New York Times reports. They regularly chat by phone and text, and are on a first-name basis.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told a New Hampshire TV station that he'll decide in about a month whether to run for president in 2020.
  • French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Trump should stop meddling in France's domestic affairs. Trump tweets have blamed the Paris climate accord for riots in French cities.

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