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Watergate Teaches Us That Democrats Should Broaden the Impeachment Charges

The Democrats are now in the midst of an impeachment. And there is no going back. So why be moderate or cautious in the leveling of entirely legitimate charges against this terrible and entirely illegitimate president?

Hundreds of activists attend a rally in New York City on October 13, 2019 demanding that Congress fulfill its constitutional duty and impeach President Donald Trump. "Broadening the impeachment makes constitutional sense," writes Isaac, "and it makes political sense, too." (Photo: Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Hundreds of activists attend a rally in New York City on October 13, 2019 demanding that Congress fulfill its constitutional duty and impeach President Donald Trump. "Broadening the impeachment makes constitutional sense," writes Isaac, "and it makes political sense, too." (Photo: Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Washington Post reports that as House Democrats prepare to move the impeachment process to the Judiciary Committee, they are now quietly debating the possible expansion of impeachment articles beyond Ukraine.

That is a very welcome development for two reasons: because Trump’s record of malfeasance extends far beyond “Ukraine,” and because, as I have been arguing for months, impeachment necessarily points beyond impeachment, to November 2020. Democrats thus need to present as strong an overarching narrative of Trump’s malfeasance as possible. The broader and less legalistic, the better.

Jonathan Chait has produced a very compelling enumeration of “The (Full) Case for Impeachment: A menu of high crimes and misdemeanors.” There is no reason not to use the Ukraine scandal to engage all of Trump’s crimes high and low. It is possible to tell a compelling story about the many corruptions that preceded “Ukraine,” that enacted the same disregard for the rule of law as “Ukraine,” and whose accumulation, over three horrendous years, has brought us to this point. Such a story could link the evidence of political corruption contained in the Mueller Report: the obvious personal corruptions of Trump and his family (emoluments, nepotism, questionable tax issues, and security clearance violations); his general indifference to due processes and governmental procedures in domestic and national security policy (think betrayal of the Syrian Kurds); his extensive record of lying to the public; and how he weaponized the government against those who criticize or oppose him.

That does not require extensive further investigation of each of these things, nor does it require that each of them be named explicitly  in an approved impeachment charge. It simply requires that efforts be made, at every level of public discussion—in hearings and outside of them—to link these things together and explain how they represent an affront to the rule of law and the basic principle of fairness.

While such a story will not persuade Republican Senators or members of the Trump cult to desert their Leader, it might persuade larger numbers of American citizens to throw him out of office in 2020, along with many of his enablers in the Senate and House. 

The Watergate example is relevant to thinking about this.

Much current commentary has focused on the procedures and precedents furnished by the Watergate impeachment process; on the similarities between then and now; and especially on the three impeachment charges ultimately approved by the House Judiciary Committee against Nixon—obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress, which led to his resignation.

But it is important to remember that those three charges were drafted within the context of a much broader discussion by the House Judiciary Committee of Nixon’s abuses of power, and that part of this discussion involved other possible charges. Two additional charges were seriously considered by the Committee, one regarding Nixon’s financial improprieties, and the second regarding Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia as part of his extension of the Vietnam War. These two charges, part of the Committee’s record, were both voted down by a 12-26 vote. But they clearly articulated important, and arguably major themes of broader public critique of Nixon’s “imperial Presidency.”

In thinking about this, I came upon an interesting piece by John Conyers published shortly after Nixon’s resignation in the October 1974 issue of The Black Scholar: “Why Nixon Should Have Been Impeached.” Conyers, who served in the House from 1965-2017, had a distinguished career as a member of Congress. A co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights activist, one of the most liberal members of Congress who was long associated with Democratic Socialists of America, he was also listed as number 13 on Nixon’s “enemies list.  In 1974, he had served in the House for nine years and was one of Nixon’s most vocal critics on a range of issues and especially the most divisive and salient issue of the time: the Vietnam War.

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In his essay, he reflected on the inextricable link between the war and the impeachment: “this secret war in Cambodia, which seemed at first incidental as I studied the record before us, has emerged as the starting point which enables me to understand the tremendous amount of surveillance and spying and burglary that has characterized the evidence and this administration, and led to eventual impeachment proceedings.” While he defended the impeachment articles recommended by the Judiciary Committee, ”although narrowly drawn,” he also insisted that the Nixon administration was plagued by “a seamless web of illegality and impropriety,” and that “the logic of the White House becomes clear: Vietnamization required the bombing of Cambodia, which in turn required secrecy at all costs.”

This is how Conyers summed up his account of Nixon’s many cases of abuse:

“These activities demonstrate that the break-in and bugging of the Democratic National Committee, and the subsequent cover-up specified in Article I, were not inexplicable aberrations from standing presidential policy of strict adherence to the law. Instead, in proper perspective, the Watergate break-in emerges as only one incident in a continuous course of conduct which had its origins in the first months following President Nixon’s inauguration. . . . By the same policies of secrecy and deception, Richard Nixon also violated a principal tenet of democratic government: that the President, like every other elected official, is accountable to the people.”

Why revisit this argument of Conyers from 1974? It did not prevail in House Judiciary Committee deliberations. But just as obviously, it articulated a broader critique that was widely voiced by Nixon’s many critics—that was widely aired nationally  throughout this period—and that played an essential role in delegitimizing Nixon and putting him on the defensive, and ultimately, defeating him.d Indeed, while it did not make its way to a formal impeachment charge, it was supported by 12 of the committee’s 38 members—almost 32%, no small number). 

Today’s situation is different in many ways.

One is especially glaring: while in 1974 House Democrats had reason to narrow the impeachment charges in order to cement a bi-partisan consensus for Nixon’s removal (six of the seventeen Republicans on the Judiciary Committee supported Article I, and seven supported Article II), today there is no hope for any bi-partisan consensus in the House, and much less chance of conviction in the Senate (in 1974 the Democrats had a strong Senate majority of 56 seats, and today the Republicans have a solid majority, with 51 seats; and in 1974 there still was a species called “liberal Republican,” now extinct).

In 1976, in the wake of Nixon’s resignation, the Democrats won the presidency, retained their substantial Senate majority, and built their substantial House majority. (Carter’s presidency, of course, was in perpetual crisis and paved the way for the Reagan Revolution. But this was a result of long-term tendencies, and hardly a consequence of Nixon’s impeachment.)

Can the Democrats turn the current crisis of Trump’s presidency into an electoral victory in 2020?

We don’t know. We do know that it is highly improbable that the Democrats can retake the Senate. But the House majority can be defended, and the Presidency can be retaken—by a bold and frontal contestation of Trump and his increasingly authoritarian Republican enablers. The Democrats are now in the midst of an impeachment. And there is no going back. So why be moderate or cautious in the leveling of entirely legitimate charges against this terrible and entirely illegitimate president? There is no good reason. Broadening the impeachment makes constitutional sense, and it makes political sense, too. We can only hope that the Democrats have the good sense to see this.

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac

Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. His books include: Democracy in Dark Times (1998); The Poverty of Progressivism: The Future of American Democracy in a Time of Liberal Decline; and Arendt, Camus, and Modern Rebellion.

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