The Democratic Party remains torn on whether to begin impeachment proceedings for President Trump — afraid that, given public opposition, such a divisive measure could backfire in the 2020 election. But John Oliver argued that, given the ample evidence for obstruction of justice, such dramatic action is necessary. “I can’t guarantee that impeachment will work out the way you want it to because it probably won’t,” the comedian said on Last Week Tonight. “But that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing because, if nothing else, we’d be standing by the basic fundamental principle that nobody is above the law.”
Sixty-three House Democrats have spoken out in support of impeachment, despite the political risks involved. Given the stakes, Oliver took a deep-dive on Sunday’s episode, exploring the actual real-life function of that process, the dangers of carrying it out and why he finds it necessary for Trump.
The host started by clearing up confusion over the term itself. “Impeachment in no way guarantees a president’s removal from office,” he said. “In fact, no president has ever actually been removed through this process. Two presidents have been impeached, Clinton and Johnson, but remained in office. And Nixon actually resigned on his own before the House could finish impeaching him.”
Impeachment typically begins with an inquiry from the House of Representatives, resulting in committee investigations and hearings into a president’s conduct. “If a majority decides they found impeachable offenses, they impeach,” he continued. “Then the process moves to the Senate, where a trial is held. A president is only removed if two-thirds of the Senate vote for it.”
The U.S. Constitution cites grounds of impeachment as treason, bribery or high crimes and misdemeanors. And the latter is a bit tough to define, being a “broad term for serious misconduct.”
“Congress is currently looking into a wide range of Trump’s potential misconduct, from campaign finance violations to whether or not he’s used his office to enrich himself,” Oliver said. “But one area where we already have considerable evidence against Trump is obstruction of justice. It’s a very serious allegation — it was among the articles of impeachment approved against both Nixon and Clinton. Obstruction was also half of Robert Mueller’s report, in which he laid out 10 potential instances of it taking place.”
The host explored one particularly alarming example in which former White House counsel Don McGahn refused to ask Rod Rosenstein to fire Mueller and threatened to resign instead after Trump asked him to do “crazy shit.”
“Trump asked McGahn to have Robert Mueller, the person investigating him, fired,” Oliver summarized. “Specifically, according to McGahn under oath, Trump told him, ‘Mueller has to go,’ adding, ‘Call me back when you do it,’ then calling him back and asking, ‘Have you done it?’ So this is clearly something very important to Trump — it wasn’t something he said casually, like, ‘Robert Pattinson should not take back Kristen Stewart. She cheated on him like a dog.'”
In a second instance that arose came after news broke that Trump tried to remove Mueller. According to the special counsel’s report, the president “wanted McGhan to put out a statement denying [it]” and “wanted McGahn to write a letter to the file ‘for our records.'”
“So to recap there, it seems the president obstructed justice, then obstructed justice again to try to obstruct the investigation into his obstruction of justice,” Oliver said. “It’s ridiculous. And I know that this may seem like a legal technicality and couple of phone calls that didn’t go anywhere, but here’s why this really matters: But for Don McGhan, Trump might have stopped an investigation into himself. And if a president can shut down an investigation, he can basically do anything with no consequences. It’s a big, big deal.”
Despite this knowledge being publicly available for months, no action has been taken. Partly, Oliver said, because “most people are simply never going to read” the Mueller report, a “448-page legal document.” And not everyone who has read the report fully grasps its contents.
The main reason some Democrats — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — have opposed impeachment is because the public support isn’t there. (However, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, support is rising.) Leading into a crucial 2020 election, moving forward may prove too massive a gamble. “Many Democrats worry that things could instead end up like the Clinton impeachment, where the public wasn’t really onboard with impeachment from the beginning and they never got onboard,” Oliver said. “And not only did Clinton survive, his party gained seats in that year’s midterms. That is what Democrats are scared about here: that impeachment could end up strengthening Trump for 2020.”
The key, he argued, is determining whether the benefits of impeachment outweigh the risks. .
“It’s impossible to say how a Trump impeachment would play out, although him leaving office is extremely unlikely,” he said. “That would require 20 Republican Senators to vote against him. And even if they did that, there is still no guarantee that Trump would actually leave … Of course Trump wouldn’t leave. You think he would hold a press conference and bashfully say into a camera, ‘I was wrong’? Then he’d graciously say, ‘I will now let someone else be the president’? You’re insane! Now what? He’ll pack a suitcase and walk — physically walk — out of the White House? And just not be the president anymore? No! He’d make us drag him out like an uncooperative toddler. You know this! You know that’s true!”
The comedian suggested Americans stop thinking in “purely binary terms” regarding impeachment: Trump’s removal from office as success, him staying in office as failure. Not initiating impeachment proceedings would have deeper, more troubling implications.
“When it comes to impeachment, there aren’t just two outcomes,” he said. “Even if Trump is not removed, which he probably won’t be, the process could shine a light on the contents of the Mueller report, potentially lead to new revelations about Trump’s conduct and force his Republicans allies to choose, publicly and on the record, whether or not to hold him to account.”
Yes, the process would be risky, and it’s impossible to know whether rolling the dice would pay off. “I’ve gone back and forth on this myself for that very reason,” Oliver said. “And to be honest, the thing that’s tipped the scales for me is remembering that not opening an inquiry comes with consequences too. It essentially sends the message that the president can act with impunity, which is a dangerous precedent to set — not just for future presidents but [also] for the current one.”
To bolster his claim, Oliver pointed to Trump’s recent interview with ABC News, in which the president said he would consider accepting damaging information about an opponent during the 2020 race without alerting the FBI.
“I know that we’ve all become numb to Trump by this point, but moments like this really shock you out of your stupor and make you think, ‘Hang on, that guy’s got to be impeached! We’ve got to impeach him!'” Oliver said. “And look — should Democrats let House investigations play out a little further before they make a move? I don’t know, maybe. There’s an argument for that. That strategy certainly paid off during Watergate. But ‘later’ can’t mean ‘never.'”
The more crucial court, he said, is public opinion — and he cited real-life examples to prove his point: “Eighteen months before he resigned, Nixon had a sky-high approval rating of 67 percent. Harvey Weinstein was winning Oscars until, one day, he finally wasn’t.”
“Every asshole succeeds,” he added, “until finally they don’t.”