If you listened closely on Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon, you could make it out: a faint impeachment drumbeat beginning to sound.
A large number of Republicans did not want Donald Trump to be their presidential nominee, but many reasoned that at least with the businessman in the Oval Office, they could pass their agenda. But the myriad scandals that have afflicted the Trump White House—with a new one seemingly breaking every day—have diminished their hopes for legislative achievements.
“Whenever there’s drama going on over there, it’s tougher for the agenda here,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). “But I suppose it’s going to continue, so I’ll have to get used to it.”
“It’s hard to make things happen here, right? It’s really hard,” added Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “You’ve got all kinds of forces working against you… so unless everybody’s aligned, everybody… it’s almost impossible. I think they’re all very aware of that.”
And while most seasoned politicians are careful not to get too far ahead of the facts, the rationale for Republicans to back Trump is beginning to disintegrate.
Meanwhile the I-word is beginning to bubble up in some lawmakers’ conversations: Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) told reporters that if the newest Comey-Trump revelations are true, they are grounds for impeachment. Rep. Al Green (D-TX) went to the house floor to demand proceedings begin. Sen. Angus King (I-ME) told CNN that Trump is getting closer to an impeachment process.
“Obstruction of justice is such a serious offense,” King said. “And I say it with sadness and reluctance. This is not something I’ve advocated for. The word [impeachment] has not passed my lips in these whole tumultuous three or four months.”
Just the evening before, major news outlets began reporting that then-FBI Director James Comey had kept contemporaneous notes showing that Trump had asked him to drop an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
“I was in the Nixon administration… and I thought after watching the Clinton impeachment, I thought we’d never another one,” said former presidential aide David Gergen on CNN. “But I think we’re in impeachment territory now for the first time… Obstruction of justice was the No. 1 charge against Nixon.”
The murmurs about impeachment have extended everywhere from the House and Senate floors to the cooks in the carryout kitchen beneath the Capitol.
“Who is the vice president? Do we have one?” one said.
“Oh, it’s Master P! Mike Pence. He’s getting ready,” responded another.
Any calculus for Republicans on the process of impeachment has to take into account Vice President Mike Pence’s standing with congressional lawmakers, as he would replace Trump if such a scenario were ever to occur.
As a former congressman and close ally of Speaker Paul Ryan, Pence is held in high regard on the House side. As vice president, he has been a frequent attendee at Republican weekly lunches on the Senate side. As reporters pressed Corker this week about reports that the president had leaked classified information to Russian officials, the senator quickly said he hoped to hear from Pence.
“I’d like to see if Pence is here today and learn a little more there,” Corker said on Tuesday.
The thoughts of impeachment proceedings are only present on the margins for the moment. One senator said innocently that the idea had not even occurred to him.
“I have no idea of that, come on,” said Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), when asked whether the current crisis might lead to impeachment. “The thought had not crossed my mind.” Just the evening before, McCain had compared Trump’s evolving scandals to a “Watergate size and scale”—a crisis, which one reporter noted, had led to impeachment proceedings.
“Not going there,” said Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, when asked by The Daily Beast about Amash’s comments on impeachment.
“I’ve been through an impeachment hearing. And they’re not good for the country, let alone the individual,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Until we know much more, this should remain where it is today—off the table.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) was similarly wary of using the term, telling The Daily Beast: “I think it is counterproductive to go ahead of the facts. Let’s take it step by step in a nonpartisan way.”
The reports that Trump had asked Comey to back off an FBI investigation—impeachment or no impeachment—led to a flurry of legislative oversight activity over the course of less than 24 hours.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz immediately demanded the FBI turn over documents it had about communications between Trump and Comey, and threatened them with subpoenas: “I have my subpoena pen ready,” he tweeted.
The Senate Judiciary Committee also demanded any memos that Comey wrote memorializing interactions with presidents, attorneys general, or deputy attorneys general within the next week; it also demanded the White House turn over any records relating to interactions with Comey.
The Senate Intelligence Committee also demanded Comey memos from the FBI on Wednesday morning and extended a new invitation to Comey to testify in an open and closed setting before its panel.
“I believe that the American people will very shortly get a chance to hear from former director Comey,” Warner said.
Amid the flurry of new congressional inquiries, some Republicans were skeptical of the initial Times story.
“The president’s adversaries and the press seem to be jumping to conclusions,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) told The Daily Beast. “One example would be that there’s allegations about a memo, never seen, that says something without the primary witness—the former director—or the document being seen. So it’s a fantastic news story about something that no one has seen or heard.”
Asked whether he thinks Congress should even see the memo, Issa was noncommittal.
“I think everyone, now that it’s been sensationalized, will be in more of a hurry to see it. Ultimately, if there’s an allegation by the former director, he’s free to come forward at any time,” he said. “He could tell the press that today. Or he could knock down the story or he could characterize it. Until he does, I don’t think there’s a story.”
—Andrew Desiderio contributed reporting.