The president’s former lawyer claims in court documents that Donald Trump directed him to break the law in 2016 to influence the election. If true, that would mean the president, as a candidate for office, also broke the law. If he were an ordinary person, Mr. Trump might well be indicted as a result of the evidence federal prosecutors gathered in their investigation of attorney Michael Cohen, but he almost certainly won’t be, at least not while he’s in office. Justice Department opinions dating to the Watergate era have held that a sitting president cannot be indicted. That applies both to the federal prosecutors in New York who brought charges against Mr. Cohen and Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whose mandate requires that he adhere to DOJ policies.
That means the only real recourse to hold this or any other president accountable for a crime is the impeachment process, and for all practical purposes, that’s no recourse at all. No matter how many Democrats call for impeachment — and party leaders are divided over the advisability of even that in advance of November’s elections — there is no realistic possibility that it will happen so long as the House of Representatives is in Republican hands. Only two previous presidents have been impeached — Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998 — and in both cases, the House was controlled by a different party. The same was true when Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment in 1974. Given the hold Mr. Trump maintains over the Republican party base, there’s no reason to expect that the House would buck that historical trend so long as the GOP is in charge.
The Sun’s editorial page argued 20 years ago that Mr. Clinton’s offenses, while deplorable, did not rise to the constitutional standard for impeachment of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” and we don’t at this point have sufficient evidence to come to a different conclusion about Mr. Trump. But we have ample reasons for concern, not just based on Mr. Cohen’s accusations but also Mr. Trump’s bizarre interactions with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his tangled business interests and the profusion of administration or campaign officials who have been indicted, convicted or forced to resign from office in disgrace.
Congress, and the House in particular, has been flagrantly negligent in its oversight duties, with Republican members seemingly more intent on using the tools at their disposal to protect the president than to uncover any wrongdoing in the Trump administration. Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been in a continual battle with the Republicans who run that panel over his requests to issue subpoenas related to a wide variety of questionable White House conduct, to little avail. The Senate has at least maintained some bipartisan integrity in its investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, but in the House, the matter has been entirely politicized.
At some point, Mr. Mueller will issue a report, but that’s no substitute for proper congressional oversight. His mandate is limited — note that the Cohen investigation arose from information the Mueller team uncovered but which was considered outside the scope of his investigation — and the question of whether the Trump campaign conspired with Russia in 2016 is by no means the only one we need answered. Moreover, there is no guarantee that the Mueller report will be made public. He is required to submit it to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who could release the report or some form of it to the public or Congress. But he is not required to, and President Trump could conceivably order him not to.
No matter how bad things looked for President Trump on Tuesday, with the near simultaneous guilty plea by Mr. Cohen and conviction of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, on several financial crimes, he remains protected from any consequences for his actions, whatever they may prove to be, so long as his party controls Congress. That means the power to hold President Trump accountable lies solely in the hands of the voters. While we consider talk of impeachment to be premature, we also believe it needs to be a legitimate possibility, should the evidence warrant it. For that reason, voters need to hand control of Congress to the Democrats this fall.