“Now, on the investigation, you know…”
So began the fateful White House conversation that revealed the “smoking gun” in President Nixon’s hand in the Watergate scandal.
Like Trump in summer 2019, Nixon in summer 1972 was obsessed with investigations.
Nixon schemed with his chief of staff to stop investigations into his guilty henchmen and what the president knew and when he knew it. That scheming figured into the first article of impeachment against him.
Trump schemed with the president of Ukraine to stage investigations into an innocent rival. Those schemes will almost inevitably figure into one of the articles of impeachment that are certain to be proposed against Trump.
Symmetrically bad moves on the part of these American presidents, it turns out. Their own recorded conversations contain their impeachable conduct.
Put another way, Nixon’s and Trump’s misconduct wasn’t witnessed or suspected or gossiped about. It was recorded. Anyone can examine official and undisputed documentation of the fateful conversations. Nixon’s can be heard here, in an official White House recording. Trump’s can be read here, in official White House notes.
That the facts of Trump’s case have been established became increasingly clear in the impeachment hearings before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
The witnesses called were a quartet of legal scholars, asked to render their expert opinions on whether Trump’s documented conduct qualified as abuse of power and the “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution says warrant impeachment and removal from office.
The three legal scholars called by Democrats on the committee — Noah Feldman of Harvard, Michael Gerhardt of the University of North Carolina and Pamela Karlan of Stanford — testified that Trump’s recorded conduct is textbook impeachable. The one called by committee Republicans, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, testified that it is not.
But no one said the White House’s memo on the call was forged; no one claimed that the substance of Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky’s dialogue was not now known to the public.
And while some committee Republicans complained that they wanted more “fact witnesses,” none of them cited a single inaccuracy in the White House’s call notes. Rep. Doug Collins (R-Ga.), ranking member of the committee, even declared, “We don’t disagree on the facts.”
It’s coming down to just one document: the call notes. As the 300-page report released Tuesday by the House Intelligence Committee makes plain, Trump’s July 25 phone call is what we could call the smoking Javelin in the Trump impeachment case.
Feldman put it bluntly on Wednesday: “According to the testimony and to the publicly released memorandum of the July 25, 2019, telephone call between the two presidents, President Trump abused his office by soliciting the president of Ukraine to investigate his political rivals in order to gain personal political advantage, including in the 2020 presidential election.”
“This act on its own,” said the constitutional scholar, “qualifies as an impeachable high crime and misdemeanor.”
Karlan — whose livelier language was seen by many as helping her steal the show — concurred: “When President Trump invited — indeed, demanded — foreign involvement in our upcoming election, he struck at the very heart of what makes this country the republic to which we pledge allegiance.”
For what it’s worth, most of the members of the Judiciary Committee seem to agree with the assessment of Trump appointee and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland that our president offered the Ukrainian president a quid pro quo, a this for that. Witness after witness called by the Intelligence Committee confirmed that Trump wanted Zelensky to 1) amplify the Kremlin’s anti-Ukraine propaganda and 2) star in a razzle-dazzle Joe Biden attack ad.
And he wanted these things so badly that he withdrew an invitation Ukraine dearly wanted and delayed aid it sorely needed.
But Karlan repeatedly emphasized that Trump’s request for what he called on the call “a favor” was all by itself impeachable. It’s an abuse of power to use the office of the presidency for personal gain. Full stop.
How can this not be the simplest impeachment case in American history?
The House Intel report describes the July 25 call as the “dramatic crescendo” in Trump’s effort “to solicit foreign interference on his behalf in the 2020 election.” “Dramatic crescendo” has flair. But I’m sticking with “smoking Javelin.”
That’s because a promised U.S. sale of Javelin missiles to Ukraine is, of course, part of what Trump apparently delayed in his campaign to get Ukraine to pretend that Biden was in hot water.
But evoking a fired missile works best because smoking weapons are not just dramatic. They’re not rhetorical. They’re not partisan. They’re evidentiary.