Signals have emerged in Washington that the Democratic leadership in the House may limit the impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump solely to one act of presidential abuse of power, his call to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. Soliciting a foreign government for personal reelection help, the thinking goes, is the strongest, clearest, most understandable of all the alleged crimes and clear abuses we have witnessed in the past year and a half. It’s the smoking gun. Let’s use it and get impeachment done fast, down and dirty.
Such a speed-driven narrowing of the inquiry would be a fundamental error. It would trivialize the role of the House of Representatives in the Grand Inquest of the Nation, as the founders called impeachment. It would deny the American people a comprehensive case for the president’s removal, and forgo the national civics lesson that an all-encompassing indictment of the president would provide, an indictment that could and should define and refine the standards and ethics the nation expects from its supreme leader.
We know how important this exercise is. The closest analogy in our history is the Watergate scandal, and the House Judiciary hearings convened to investigate it and the prospects for impeachment. Those hearings examined obstruction of justice and abuse of power claims related to the reelection campaign of President Nixon, to an Oval Office cover up of a crime (the burglary of the Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel) and to the limits of executive privilege.
I was there, watching. The process could easily have careened off the rails. After eight months of painstaking evidence gathering and testimony, however, the House Judiciary Committee framed and voted on five articles of impeachment. The charges had been arrived at with remarkable if not perfect transparency, so that the American people could also decide for themselves about the president’s culpability, along with their representatives. The debate was dignified, fair and respectful.
There were some on the committee who were never convinced. But in the end, six Republicans and 21 Democrats couldn’t escape the overwhelming evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors. They “reported” three of the five articles to the full House for a vote.
Seeing the way it was going (and helped to that insight by Republicans in the Senate), President Nixon resigned, and the “grand inquest” was truncated. As a result Nixon was never actually impeached by the House, or tried and convicted in the Senate. History is much poorer for it. In 2019, if the House of Representatives votes to impeach, the process is likely to proceed to its intended conclusion. Of Nixon, President Trump has said, “He left. I don’t leave.”
The reverberations from 1974 are still being felt in the way we govern ourselves and what we expect of our commander in chief. Out of that impeachment experience, truncated as it was, there emerged a concept called “post-Watergate ethics,” and legislation to make explicit the norms that had been violated by Nixon.
Three seminal laws were passed that directly addressed Nixon’s crimes, all of them are relevant to the current situation. The Ethics in Government Act established a mechanism for the appointment and protection of a special prosecutor. The Inspector General Act was passed in the wake of the Watergate scandal to ensure “integrity and accountability in the Executive Branch.” The Presidential Records Act protected incriminating White House records from destruction and from being covered up, especially when the covering-up was intended to stymie congressional investigation. (Nixon was always asked later why he didn’t burn the tapes.)
Just as in 1974, in 2019 we have to acknowledge the weaknesses in our system that have allowed a president to veer away from the rule of law and toward self-dealing and authoritarianism. The House impeachment inquiry should not ignore the findings of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. We have seen 37 people charged with crimes; seven have pleaded guilty, five have gone to prison. There have been 199 criminal charges, eight state and local investigations, and 11 congressional investigations. Is all this to be cast aside for the phone call and the whistleblower’s complaint?
Nor should the impeachment process sideline the hush money payments to the two women who revealed their affairs with Trump. Those payments were about the same amount of money that Nixon authorized to be paid to the Watergate burglars to keep them quiet, payola that proved to be central evidence of obstruction of justice in crafting the first article of impeachment against him.
If the Democrats today are so sure that the Zelensky phone call is the strongest evidence they have for Trump’s corruption and removal, let them put that charge in their first article of impeachment, so that it will be the focus of the initial vote in the House and in the Senate trial that will follow. Conviction on only one article of impeachment is sufficient to remove the president.
In cataloging all the charges against Trump, some may not rise to the level of substantiality for removal, again as in 1974. So be it. Let those articles be voted down. That too would help us understand concretely — and later in the abstract — what qualifies and what doesn’t as a high crime and misdemeanor.
The rough transcript of the July 25 phone call and the whistleblower complaint are strong evidence for Trump’s impeachment. But it would be a dereliction of duty to stop there. History would deplore a rush to judgment. This smoking gun revelation has not come in a vacuum.
If Trump skates through this fall without consequence, that will codify a new code of ethics for his potential second term and for future presidents. If he does not, the nation may be on the path toward healing and renewal.
James Reston Jr.‘s latest book is “The Impeachment Diary: Eyewitness to the Removal of a President.” He is also the author of “The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews.”