The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Seventeen Republican senators are on the record as saying that a president can obstruct justice

Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
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There were strong words from Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressing the suddenly salient question of whether a president can be found to have obstructed justice. President Trump’s attorney John Dowd suggested this week that he couldn’t.

Sessions appears to disagree.

“The chief law officer of the land, whose oath of office calls on him to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, crossed the line and failed to protect the law, and, in fact, attacked the law and the rights of a fellow citizen,” Sessions said. “Under our Constitution, such acts are high crimes, and equal justice requires that he forfeit his office.”

The twist is that Sessions was not talking about Trump. That quote, unearthed by Politico, was about Bill Clinton and was uttered by Sessions in 1999 during the Senate vote determining whether Clinton should be removed from office.

In May, we noted that more than 100 members of Congress were around during the Clinton impeachment hearings and cast votes on whether he should face impeachment for his actions. Among those 101 people were 17 currently sitting Republican senators who supported the idea that Clinton should be held accountable for obstructing justice. Eight of those Republican senators were then in the House.

Nine others were already in the Senate.

It’s worth revisiting how the process of impeachment works. The House votes on articles of impeachment that, if approved with a majority vote, go to the Senate. (This is the actual impeachment.) There, the Senate decides if the subject is guilty of the charges. If two-thirds of the senators think the person is guilty, the person is removed from office. In other words, should articles of impeachment against Trump get out of the House — which is almost certainly not going to happen in a chamber with a large Republican majority — 67 senators would have to then vote to find the president guilty.

As it stands, there are 48 Democrats in the Senate. If the 17 senators who voted either to impeach Clinton on obstruction of justice (the eight who were then in the House) or to find him guilty of the charge (the nine in the Senate) were willing to be consistent in considering the question for Trump, three more Republican senators would need to join them.

No such consistency should be expected, of course; it’s not how politics works in 2017. What’s more, though, we should seek the same consistency from the 11 current Democratic senators who voted against impeaching Clinton or removing him from office. Meaning that 14 more votes would be needed to remove Trump from office.

Nonetheless, that more than 30 percent of the Senate’s Republican caucus has already weighed in on whether a president can be found to have obstructed justice is significant. And Trump’s attorney general — the guy who runs the department that houses special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Trump and Russia — at one point explicitly rejected the argument posed by Trump’s lawyer. It may not amount to much beyond inconsistency (which itself is clearly not an impeachable offense), but it’s worth noting.

This article was corrected after Newsweek’s Julia Glum noted that we’d missed Sen. Hatch in our original analysis